"Filumena," the comedy that opened Tuesday at Olney Theater, is an Italian traffic jam of a play, full of screaming fights, extravagant gestures, and the passion of those who believe themselves to have been wronged. The characters bounce off each other like bumper cars and reach new plateaus of apoplexy with each scene.
While last year's Broadway production directed by Laurence Olivier was reportedly too weak to sustain the bellow of this Italian comedy, Olney's production has been marinated in olive oil almost to excess. There are times when the characters take on aspects of the cartoon Italian -- what with the continual hand-under-the-chin, slap-on-the-forehead gestures and muttered curses -- but then anyone who's spent any time in Italy will remember that this kind of unrestrained emotion is not uncommon.
"You have-a destroyed me," rages Richard Bauer (Don Domenico Soriano) as the curtain goes up. He is in a fine fury, having been tricked by his common-law wife of 25 years, the Filumena of the title, into legalizing their union at what was supposedly her deathbed.
The plot is familiar to anyone who has seen the movie "Marriage Italian-Style," a 1964 Sophia Loren vehicle based on this 1946 play by Eduardo de Filippo. Filumena is a child of the Neapolitan slums who escaped to a whorehouse, where she met Don Domenico the heir to a successful pastry business. He sets her up in an apartment, and later installs her as his housekeeper. After the deathbed marriage, she informs him she has three sons whom she wants to bear his name. He learns from a lawyer that he can have the marriage annulled, she agrees to leave him to his 22-year-old girlfriend -- and then she tells him that one of the sons is his. The machinations are tumultuously resolved with several more arguments and a few tears.
While Filumena is clearly a difficult woman, illiterate and lacking in social graces, her slightly screwball method of preserving her pride contrasts favorably with Domenico's posturing hypocrisy.
It is more honest in Filumena's mind to steal money from Domenico to support her children than to have aborted them when she was pregnant, and it was right to have waited 25 years to trick him into marriage than have blackmailed him emotionally when they were younger. Domenico is a vain playboy ("I've slept with so many women I don't believe I slept at all," he brags to his servant) who expresses emotions with great panache but doesn't seem to experience them.
Although Olney's production could be doctored with a dose of restraint, it is robust, lively, and, if you like this kind of comedy, funny. The Italian accents tend to fade in and out like clouds passing over the sun, but the gestures are pure. Bauer captures the false sex appeal of Domenico and manages to top each rage with a new one. Dorothea Hammond, while slightly hampered by a strange, Ruth Gordonesque gait and set of mannerisms, produces a full-palated Filumena whose guile is outweighed only by her sense of survival. John Neville-Andrews mars an otherwise fine performance with an excessive bent-over posture, and Robert J. Bouffier is far too swishy as the effeminate lawyer. Ellen Dorsher is excellent and quite lovely as the girlfriend, and Anthony Risoli is a standout as the son whose genes are all to evident. Filumena, produced by Olney Theater, by Eduardo de Filippo, directed by James D. Waring, scene and lighting design by James D. Waring, costumes by Pamela Tomasetti.
With Dorothea Hammond, Richard Bauer, John Neville-Andrews, Vivienne Shub, Ellen Dorsher, Gina Allured, Brian O'Connor, Anthony Risoli, Michael Rothhaar, Robert J. Bouffier, S. M., Elizabeth Kentis, G. Patrick Baggot III, and John Lescault.
At Olney Theater through July 19.