Volume 76, Number 1 | May 24 - 30, 2006

THEATER

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Brian Voelcker, Shân Willis, and Russell Stevens in Mario Fratti’s surprise-twist play “Sister,” at La MaMa through June 4.

Mario Fratti’s grip on our 15 minutes

By JERRY TALLMER

In a hospital room in Milan, Italy, a son and a daughter are having an argument over what men want and women want. The son is 20, the daughter is 39. She has been badly beaten up by some man or other with whom she has spent the night, or part of it. Her aggressiveness and casual promiscuity is what drives her young brother crazy. His heated exchange with her now is parallel to a discussion he has earlier had with their mother, in which he was startled to discover that the mother, too, once had sexual urges of her own.

THE SON: Who sent those flowers? The bastard who beat you up?

THE DAUGHTER: No. He is not the type to send flowers.

SON: Who is it then?

DAUGHTER: I don’t care.

SON: Maybe you know. I’m sure you know …

DAUGHTER: Why are you so jealous? Of Mommy too, I bet. Think for a moment. If Mommy, your mother, were in bed with someone, what would you think? Would you be jealous?

SON: No. But I prefer not to think about it …

Mario Fratti, who wrote the above lines and put them into a 1994 play called “Sister,” which, after exposure in several countries abroad, is at La MaMa through June 4, likes to make people think about things just like that — mommies or sisters “in bed with someone,” for instance.

“Pirandello once said” — Luigi Pirandello is, of course, one of the gods of any playwright who happens to have been born in l’Aquila, Italy, one hour from Rome — “Pirandello once said: ‘My only purpose in life is to force an audience to talk about my plays for at least 15 minutes.’

“Which is my dream too,” said Mario Fratti the other morning in the museum — books, prints, posters, statuary, photographs, bric-a-brac, what-have-you — that is the tiny apartment in the West 50s of this city where he’s lived since forever.

Playgoers may well be talking for at least 15 minutes after the turnabout at the very end of “Sister,” a twist that might just bring to mind a certain shattering moment in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”

It was from a dramatist of some note that Fratti — in his capacity as journalist — learned something else about playmaking.

“It was when I was interviewing Arthur Miller in the café at Broadway and 55th Street. He told me he had five or six plays in a drawer that nobody will ever see. And he said: ‘A good playwright starts at the end of the play so he knows where he’s going. That’s how I started with ‘All My Sons,’ he said.”

And that’s how Fratti started here.

It’s the son in “Sister” — the 20-year-old — who gets the worst jolt.

“And it’s all based on a real family,” said Fratti. “A family back in Italy, where I grew up. The son and I were kids together to the age of 20. He hated his sister for her promiscuity — until he found out something so shocking that he changed completely in his behavior, from always saying: ‘My sister is a whore’ to becoming very loving of her.

“I love drawing an audience in one direction and then hitting them by surprise,” said Mario Fratti.

The actors who make it happen at La MaMa are Eleanor Ruth as the mother, Shân Willis as the daughter, Brian Voelker as the son, and Russell Stevens as a male presence, all under the direction of Pamela Billig, who 15 years ago mounted a couple of other plays by Fratti. “She has moved the locale of ‘Sister’ from New York, where I wrote it, to Milano.”

Mario Fratti and his beard and his dome and his smile and his genial high intelligence have been around this town — a presence at theatrical productions large and small maybe five nights a week, maybe more — for lots of years. He writes criticism and news for America Today and for Musical!, a Milan magazine — “and, surprise, they pay me! As a reviewer, I’m always positive. I always stress what’s good. Could be the actor, could be the writing, could be the set. If the play’s no good, I ignore it. I meet too many young playwrights who are discouraged.”

Best play he’s seen this year? “Awake and Sing,” Clifford Odets, 1935.

Fratti himself, as noted, writes plays. Last time we talked he had 40 being done around the world. And now? “Oh, my God, I don’t know. Probably 81. Sometimes I’m embarrassed at how many.”

One of them, the 1976 “Passionate Women,” which had flowered out of Mario’s youthful days as a reporter observing Federico Fellini at work, so to speak — because you couldn’t tell he was working — on “La Strada” and other masterpieces at Rome’s Cinecitta, became in turn the seed of the 1982 Tony-winning (and lately reprised) Broadway musical “Nine.”

Another Fratti comedy, of more recent vintage, “Erotic Adventures in Venice,” poked fun at, among others, the Mr. Banana of Italian politics, TV billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, who just a couple of weeks ago was at last ousted as Prime Minister in an election that ended closer than a whisker.

“A billionaire and a clown,” Fratti said now, “who brainwashed the Italians for 10 years. His undoing was his gaffe: ‘I am greater than Napoleon, greater that Churchill, greater than Jesus Christ!’ The reason they’d voted him in is because — like Bush, you know — he promised to reduce taxes for the rich.”

Playwright Fratti with a half-laugh: “Even my brother, an accountant in l’Aquila, voted for him, I think, only because he was promised no taxes on the house.”

Are you going to write a new play about Berlusconi?

“No. I only write about subjects who deserve it. My newest play is about Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. And about the three Venezuelan generals who were paid by Washington to kill him, and the incredible competition between those three generals.

“What few critics have detected is that basically all my plays have as background the class struggle. In Milano I wrote a play called ‘The Cage,’ and one critic said: ‘What surprised me was that all these characters are right, none of them are wrong.’ ”

As in Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” where someone says: “And the terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons”?

“Yes, and even in this play, this ‘Sister,’ all three characters are right. Pirandello called his plays Naked Masks. My principle is: Everyone wears a mask. You’re forced to lie to survive. This is the human condition today. Basically I’m an atheist and a Marxist, but if I tell this, I’m ruined.”

He did not look like man about to be ruined, or who could easily be ruined.

“I’m 79 now, and finally my city is accepting that fact.” He passed across a new book from Italy, “Storia del Teatro entro Abruzzi,” by Franco Celenza. “There’s 10 pages about me in here, which means I exist. My parents both lived to be 94. Good genes.” Half a beat. “So there’s a danger I can write some more plays.”

We’ll take that risk.

SISTER. By Mario Fratti. Directed by Pamela Billig. Through June 4 at La MaMa E.T.C., 74-A East 4th Street, (212) 475-7710.

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