Bungled Recipe

An Italian family cooks, fights, eats and makes up in 'Saturday, Sunday, Monday.'

At the beginning of Eduardo de Filippo's family comedy Saturday, Sunday, Monday, two Neapolitan women argue about the proper way to prepare ragu.

Rosa, the mother of the household, advocates slow, careful interaction of onion and meat during the sauté phase, adding just the right vegetables at just the right moment in the course of a slow, patient process. Virginia, the maid, is content to dump everything together and put it on to boil.

De Filippo has unwittingly provided the metaphor for how he bungled a perfectly good theatrical recipe. He loads up his play with too many halfway interesting ideas and too many underdeveloped characters, and lets everything bubble along untended in what is supposed to be a big, boisterous Italian family.

Initially, the play seems to be about the generation gap, as it was called in the early 1970s when de Filippo wrote the script. Peppino, Rosa's husband, runs a men's clothing store, which he has taken over from Rosa's father, the now-doddering, old Antonio. A couple of decades ago, Peppino was an innovator, but now his line seems old-fashioned. Rocco, the younger of Peppino's two sons, is hip to wide lapels and flared trousers, and is preparing to open his own shop, much to Peppino's resentment.

And so the play seems to melt into a story of old-fashioned ideas butting up against the new, with Peppino's daughter, Giulianella, feuding with her fiancé, Federico, over her desire for a TV career. Federico is young, but his concept of a woman's proper place belongs more to ancient Antonio's generation.

Ultimately it becomes a play about indifference and jealousy. Not only is Peppino miffed about Rocco's new store, but he's angry that a married neighbor, Luigi, is paying so much attention to Rosa, the wife Peppino has taken for granted for so many years. Rosa herself holds some simmering grudge against Peppino. Slopped over everything is food.

De Filippo crowds 17 characters onto the stage, and at least seven of them could easily be tossed out with the table scraps. A supposedly liberated aunt and her smothered son should either get more stage time or be eliminated entirely; Peppino's older son and his wife contribute nothing, nor does the friendly neighborhood doctor, nor the uncle besotted with acting, nor the maid's brother, nor the maid for that matter, and the tailor just provides a little comic diversion with Antonio, who wants his new suit to be mod. This bloated cast list is one thing that keeps Saturday, Sunday, Monday off the stages of most cost-conscious professional companies.

And so it's up to amateurs and semi-pros like the Catalina Players to keep this play on the boards. That's what the company is doing this month, and it's a nice effort by a community theater group (some of the actors are appearing onstage for the first time as adults). But it's not enough of an effort to make this seem like a fully worthy play.

De Filippo was a tremendously popular Italian playwright and actor who died nearly 20 years ago; his heyday was the late 1930s into the '50s. Saturday, Sunday, Monday is one of his late works, and it seems tired. It's a comedy, but there are very few funny lines; the humor must emerge either from the nature of characters forced to contend with a disagreeable situation, Shaw-like, or from an antic, commedia dell'arte staging. De Filippo doesn't deliver deep enough characters for the first option, and director Joel Charles takes an approach too naturalistic to succeed under the second set of terms.

A few months ago, I faulted the Catalina Players for taking an excessively stagy approach to Crimes of the Heart (see "Comedic Turn," May 1). This time, perversely, my complaint is that the staging is too relaxed and "normal." Under most other circumstances, the restraint of Charles and his actors (including the excellent Randall Stanton as a beleaguered Peppino) would be most welcome--we never get the feeling that they're trying to push our buttons or be dorky because they don't know how to relax. But operatic exaggeration is what this script cries out for; these should be raging, sputtering, heart-on-sleeve Italians for whom the merest compliment about a meal is a matter of life and death. De Filippo hints at this by having one character romp around briefly, for no particular reason, as the commedia dell'arte figure Pulcinella. What this play needs is more mugging and shouting.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday enjoyed a London production directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Laurence Olivier. But when the show moved to Broadway in 1974, it closed after only 12 performances. The script was found wanting then, and it's no better 30 years later. Three hours of cooking won't save a ragu made from spoiled beef.

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