Remember Love, American Style? It was a lighthearted attempt at feminism and gender-bending, which somehow always ended up in bawdy, wide-angle shots of breasts and behinds and concluded in catty dialogues that took place in a huge, brass four-poster bed. As a youngster I tuned in for the opening shot of the fireworks and the big bed, which fascinated me because it often was on wheels and would be seen rolling down a street before the commercials. As a grownup leaving the EDGE/North's production of Antonio, I wondered if this weren't the new-millennium version of Love, American Style.
Thirty years after the fireworks, the waitress-goosing, and the use of words like whoopee for sex, we have Antonio, played by Julio Scardini, a Colombian prostitute turned model turned movie star. Opposite Antonio is the man who discovers him, artist Marshall Palladino (Chris Vicchiollo). Both are bisexual, and the EDGE/North heralds Jim Tommaney's play as the story of "two bisexual men and the women they love." Liz Dennis plays high-heeled, high-powered gallery owner Bianca Bell, and Andrea Davis takes the role of Angela Drysdale, a promiscuous (which still seems to translate to sexually liberated) movie star. There is an attraction between the two men, but Marshall won't explore it because it is against his principles to sleep with his models. The rest of the play is about their unrequited love for each other and their relationships with Bianca and Angela.
The old theme song went: "Love, American style, truer than the red, white, and blue. Love, American style, that's me and you." Perhaps the updated version might go: "Love, American style, that's me and you and you and that guy over there and this one and me, me, me." Each member of the cast makes his or her entrance announcing, "Hi. I'm the main character," highlighting the egoism of our culture and giving us the idea that we are going to see four very strongly defined characters. Knowing the intriguing topic of the play, we're ready for a piece of theater that deals boldly with whom we love and how we love in America in the year 2000. Amateurish acting and characters with unclear motives unfortunately prevent us from getting close enough to learn anything about this theme.
Antonio is based on a couple of premises about sex and success that the viewer has to accept to allow the play its raison d'être. For one we are supposed to believe Marshall is an up-and-coming, respected New York artist, but the unveiling of his portraits of Antonio reveals slick homoerotic images, comparable at best to Bruce Weber. Although Marshall makes some interesting statements throughout the play about being an artist, the actual photographs and paintings used as props (all of them done by local artists) are so commercial that they undermine the characterization of him as the quintessential true artist.
Two ongoing problems are the cluttered set, which includes three different living spaces on one stage, and too-frequent scene changes. What really mars this production, however, is unconvincing acting, especially and unfortunately on the part of Scardini. When Marshall first photographs Antonio, he tells him (rather cheesily): "Give me some attitude. I want to see attitude." Scardini's portrayal of emotions such as rage and joy is so cardboard-cutout it almost seems like cartoon animation. An optimist might think, Maybe he's making a parody of his own character. That would be refreshing, but alas, he truly is "modeling." How can someone who has the emotional depth of a Disney character convince us he is the next Rudolph Valentino? Scardini has the dark hair and smoldering eyes of a matinee idol, but his stage presence is nonexistent.
It is a painful thing to watch an actor trying to be natural and not succeeding. Scardini's Antonio loses his concentration and his voice trails off. The personality he has scraped up for Antonio is what might be called "good natured" -- not likely for a gay man who has escaped from Colombia, one of the most violent nations in this hemisphere, and who is now hustling in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn. When he is seducing Angela, he is good natured. When he is trying to seduce Marshall, he is good natured. Whether his lines are "Your mother's a whore" or "In Colombia we were poor, but we had the respect of a community," he uses the same tone. Nothing in his voice or movements changes with different situations; there is no gesture particular to his character, no special way of doing things. A small but telling example: When he kneels down to pray, he does it in the most inauthentic way. He sounds as if he could be a little boy in Iowa saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep." Catholics do not pray like Protestants, and not all Latin-American Catholics pray alike. Colombians, as it happens, have a very detailed way of crossing themselves -- they cross each shoulder, the forehead, the center of the chest. This sort of detail helps make a character believable, and in an area with South Florida's Latino population, the research should be easy.
The whole motivation for the play is that Marshall suggests to Angela that she marry Antonio, whom she has never met, and she agrees, meets Antonio in a gallery, and is in bed with him by the next scene. Surprisingly in a work subtitled "An Unusual Romance," the driving force of the dramatic action is quite traditionally heterosexual: Let's get these bisexual men hitched to power-hungry blondes ASAP. In short neither the sex nor the sexuality is believable. We have no idea why Marshall decides to set up Antonio with Angela, but the stage chemistry between the two is entirely unconvincing. When he's saying, "Just let your body guide you," and she's smiling blissfully, the audience is thinking, Yeah, right. Andrea Davis has latched on to giving Angela a sort of poor-little-rich-girl slutty sex appeal, but she doesn't stray from this to find any real depth or meaning in her character. In bed, out of bed, denying themselves pleasure, succumbing to it, nude or fully clothed, these actors are just not very sexy. One wonders why Tommaney, who also directed, allowed them to struggle in these parts.
Chris Vicchiollo and Liz Dennis have managed to carve out characters with some verisimilitude. Dennis, in particular, consistently controls her intensity throughout the play so that her character's personality evolves as she encounters different situations. Bianca has a characteristic way of striding into a room, stopping, evaluating. She is savvy as a businesswoman and as a lover. She is as Marshall paints her: the tigress at rest. Largely to the credit of Dennis and Vicchiollo, the play's attempt to explore human relationships from a new angle keeps the audience hanging on. But when the plot begins to pick up speed, our final fear is confirmed: We are racing toward an unsuitably neat and tidy resolution. Antonio appears one evening as a desert chieftain dressed in white. We see him leaning over the slumbering Marshall, and the stage, for the 100th time, goes black. After the usual bumping-around, Little Rascals scene change, we watch Marshall wake up alone and fully clothed. It is only when he catches sight of the sheik's white head cloth that he remembers, Yes, Antonio paid me a visit last night! At last we have consummated our love! Amazingly Marshall realizes he can now marry Bianca -- who seemed to stir no sexual arousal in him until she brought over a large pizza and ripped off her slutty little sex-shop dress. Why would physically expressing a love that you have held for so long be the reason to cement a less- passionate relationship? And who wakes up incognizant after a night of long-awaited fornication? These are the kinds of questions that make the drama seem inauthentic and unconvincing.
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