Volume 80, Number 20 | October 14 - 20, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Theater

TRIO
Written by Mario Fratti
Directed by Stephan Morrow
Through October 24
At Theater for the New City (155 First Ave. btw. 10th and 11th Sts.)
For tickets ($12), call (212) 254-1109

Photo by Peter James Zielinski

Tony Award nominee Rose Gregorio and Christopher Kerson.

A ‘Trio’ of tales, each with a killer kicker
Playwright Fratti chiefly concerned with psychology, erotica, politics

BY JERRY TALLMER

Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream…

—W.S. Gilbert, “H.M.S. Pinafore”
 
Mario Fratti writes plays the way other people sneeze. Ker-choo, a play. Ker-choo, another play. Ker-choo, another play.

Most of them are pretty good, and almost all of them have what used to be called an O. Henry ending — i.e., a surprise ending, a kicker. Or in my friend Mario’s case, a Pirandello ending — Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) being, in Italian-born Catholic-bred atheist Fratti’s case, the nearest approximation of God.

“I never start writing a play until I first have the ending,” Fratti has said more than once over the years, and says it again now on the occasion of the American premieres of three short works of his under the neat logical title “Trio.”

‘A good ending,” he clarifies — by way of a lesson learned long ago when a younger Fratti was himself a journalist interviewing Arthur Miller.

In “Trio” play No. 1 — “Anniversary” — the kicker is a daughter who becomes the incestuous object of a father who is perhaps not a father, while a silent manservant — or accomplice — stands by, pouring the wine.

In play No. 2 — “Missionaries,” set in Africa — the kicker is the black woman in the bed in the next room to this room in which we see and hear a severe Sister Caterina laying down the law of priestly chastity to a young Father Edward who is hot to trot.

In play No. 3 — “Iraq” — the kicker is not the blinded American soldier returned home from that misbegotten country and war. It’s his buddy, the hero, who will never come home.

“They surprise you, the endings — all three, no? And at the end, with each play,” says the man who wrote them, “they all just freeze, the actors. Shocking, yes? Show no reaction, nothing.”

Okay, Mario, you have your endings, your kickers. But from where do you get your beginnings — the idea, the trigger, of each play?

“From different places. Maybe a little item in The New York Times about the deaths of certain soldiers in Iraq. Or, in the case of ‘Anniversaries,’ from a personal experience.

“I knew a woman who hated the bourgeoisie because they had ruined her life. She concocted a plot with her black lover to get her revenge. I met her right here in New York, and she took me aside and told me the story.”

What did she do in life, this woman?

“She was an actress in a porno film.”

The kicker beyond the kicker.

“But with play No. 2, ‘Missionaries,’ again a little item in The New York Times about people protesting at the UN because the Vatican was forcing priests not to marry.

“These people in the play, the nun (beloved actress Rose Gregorio) and the priest (Christopher Kerson), are missionaries there in Africa without the means to get help to do their job. No money, no medicine, no food, no supplies, nothing.”

Spunky 83-year-old Mario Fratti, lifelong disbeliever and Marxist, seems really outraged at such misdoing by the Church. And cheerfully follows it up with this:

“Last year, Vatican Radio called and asked me to write a play for them about Marilyn Monroe. They have a series of writers talking to dead people. So I wrote it — I write very fast, you know — and now I’m on the radio talking to an actress who pretends to be Marilyn Monroe. My voice is there, on the radio.

“What do we talk about? Oh, Paula Strasberg. Lee Strasberg. Arthur Miller, of course. Otto Preminger.”

(Lee Strasberg, director, actor, teacher, co-founder of the Actors Studio. Paula Strasberg, his wife — Marilyn Monroe’s omnipresent acting coach and substitute mama).

“I met Marilyn on Sundays at the Strasbergs,” says Fratti. “What was she like? Adorable, vulnerable. Very vulnerable. Didn’t know how to defend herself. Yves Montand, for instance, ruined her relationship with Arthur Miller.”

The animated fireplug who is Mario Fratti looks his most conspiratorial as he says: “These broadcasts are heard all over Europe, you know. I think they’re trying to prove there’s an afterlife.”

Measured pause.

“Of course I don’t believe it,” he says.

Maybe someday you’ll be proved wrong, Mario, a teasing newsman digs.

Fratti shrugs.

“Okay,” he calmly says.

Apart from Vatican Radio, has Mario Fratti ever acted?

“When I was 12,” he says, touching this interviewer’s arm for emphasis. “It was in a school play about a little kid — an Italian hero who fought against the Austrians.

“The teacher set me on her lap with my nose between her big soft breasts. I decided right then and there that the theater would be my future. A very Fellini thing, you know,” says the man who as a cub reporter in Rome watched Fellini at work (so to speak) on the set, and would years later write the book of “Nine” — the Broadway musical crafted from Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” in which the boy Guido gets his first lesson in sex from a large, wild prostitute on the beach.

“Í always write about three things,” says Fratti. “Psychology, erotica, and politics.”

He was born on July 5, 1927, in the town of L’Aquila (the capital of the Italian province of Abruzzo) — where his father was an active and ardent union man.

“I was 14 when I recognized the need to change the world. And I used the theater as a means to illuminate and educate. The head, the head. Keep the brain alive!” says this pepper pot playwright who has packed that philosophy into far more than the “28 Unpredictable Plays” published by New York Theatre Experience. Indeed, Fratti never stops writing and has turned out maybe two or three times 28 plays in toto. So far.

He has also been a drama critic over all these years — goes to theater seven, eight, nine times a week, sending his critiques to America Oggi, here in New York, and various magazines back in Italy, the country he left in 1963 when, he says, the late Lucille Lortel, patroness of the arts, “invited me to do two of my plays, ‘Academy’ and ‘The Return,’ at the Theatre de Lys,” the Christopher Street playhouse now called the Lortel.

And has also been a teacher here, first at Columbia University “for one year, until I was forced out for siding with the [striking] students” in the catastrophic on-campus police bust of 2 a.m., April 30, 1968. “One of my students lost an eye.”

From Columbia to Hunter College, as a professor of Italian literature over the several decades until his retirement two years ago. As he heads back to rehearsals of “Trio” he flashes a Mario Fratti smile. “That woman in the next room in ‘Missionaries,’ “ he says. “A big sockeroo, yes?”

Yes, Mario, yes.

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