Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo (1952) is as savvy as a play can get. The amatory adventure of a very American executive secretary in a Venetian pensione encompasses an examination of differing attitudes toward sex in Europe and fifties America; a meditation on marriage versus relationships; a commentary on the interaction of naïve tourists and canny natives; and four love stories, two mostly offstage, two mostly on. We have here what the French call comédie larmoyante, drollery tinged with tears.
Those who know only the pleasant movie version, titled Summertime, do not know how much defter and deeper is the fairly different stage original. Laurents has managed a piece that plays with the heartwarming and the acidulous, the fancied and the real, the satiric and the sentimental, as if they were balls juggled by a master, circulating so fast as to be perceived as one – like the ring around Saturn.
Leona Samish, midwestern and at the middle of life’s journey, is in Europe for the first time, filled with wonder and hungry for adventure. Where but in Venice, in the garden of the Pensione Fioria, should summer flower with the spirit of Casanova, or at least that of Henry James? But even if Leona knew about them, she’d want her Casanova without transience, her James without tragedy. She is surrounded by the somewhat older proprietress, Signora Fioria, who enjoys a longstanding relationship with a comfortable lover; a young American couple, Eddie and June Yeager, he a painter on a grant, she an assiduous dilettante; Lloyd and Edith McIlhenny, older American tourists from hell; and Giovanna, the maid, besotted with her boyfriend. Leona is shepherded by Mauro, a streetwise 10-year-old, a tough little cookie with nevertheless a vulnerable child inside him.
The Yeagers have marital squabbles as well as great sex (Eddie even has some hanky-panky in a gondola with the Signora); the McIlhennys bump along the well-trodden tourist path, she captious, he grouchy. And what is there for Leona? Renato DiRossi, a middle-aged but youthful shopkeeper from whom she buys a goblet that may or may not be eighteenth-century, and gets lovemaking that may or may not be genuine. Renato is poor but perhaps honest, sincere even if he disconcertingly turns out to be married.
As contrasting ideologies and lifestyles play off one another, the characters may or may not learn something. But we privileged spectators unobtrusively learn a lot while being elegantly entertained, our minds exercised no less than our emotions. Nicholas Martin has directed with a masterly sense of pacing a play whose rhythms and pauses are as important as what is said and done, and has uncovered the flux and reflux underlying the surface whirligig.
A pitch-perfect cast responds to all the harmonic subtleties. Slimmed down and less obviously a comedienne, Debra Monk gives a riveting performance in which love-starvedness and suspicion, hopeful fantasizing and injured pride coexist in the tangled mess of existential truth. As Renato, Olek Krupa, Slav though he is, manages to be splendidly Italianate, effusive but not sloppy, blemished but genuinely human. The Turkish-American Cigdem Onat, as the Signora, does full justice to a role that might have been written for Anna Magnani. As the loving and sparring Yeagers, Adam Trese and Ana Reeder are as impeccable as the more ludicrous McIlhennys of Tom Aldredge and Polly Holliday. The cast is full-bloodedly rounded out by Chiara Mangiameli, Paolo Pagliacolo, and young Sebastian Uriarte, who, without Italian descent, carries off the accent and manner of a Venetian street-and-canal urchin to perfection. With James Noone’s set, Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting expertly balancing opulence and verisimilitude, you can have at this Time of the Cuckoo the time of your theatergoing life.