A Gay Man, a Housewife, and Mussolini

Culture Watch
tags: Bruce Chadwick, theater, Off-Broadway, New York City, theater review


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Working on a Special Day
59 E. 59 Theaters
59 E. 59th Street
New York, N.Y.

How do you turn a movie that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and starred Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren into a successful play?

Very carefully.

Working on a Special Day opened in New York City this month. The story, set on the day Adolf Hitler visited Benito Mussolini in Rome, Italy, in 1938, is a barebones version of the 1977 Italian film Una Giornata Particolare that starred Loren and Mastroianni near the peak of their careers. The play only has two characters, a Spartan one-room set, no special effects besides a radio and only runs seventy minutes.

It is a charming little play, full of passion, drama and ingenuity, but it is hard to love.

The two stars, who translated the script and directed themselves in the drama, are Ana Graham (Antoinette) and Antonio Vega (Gabriel).

In the play, Antoinette, who can’t stand her husband, and Gabriel see each other on one of the days that Hitler and Mussolini meet. Antoinette’s husband has taken all of their children to witness the historic event. Gabriel, a radio broadcaster who has lost his job, tries to seduce Antoinette and finally admits to her that he is gay. The pair then tangle with each other, their feelings very mixed up.

All of that is preceded by forty-five minutes of excruciating boredom as the storyline is put in place. That is the longest forty-five minutes in stage history. The rest of the play is explosive. The trick is getting through the beginning.

To help you do that, Graham, Vegas and set designers David Arsenault and Gabriel Pascal, came up with an ingenious idea. The two actors continually use chalk to draw pieces of the set on the black walls of the stage. It's fascinating -- they sketch a bird cage, telephone, coat rack, windows and even a broken lamp. They draw a clock that says 5 p.m. and then, later, they redraw it to say 8 p.m. They use everything they draw and also make a series of remarkably identifiable sounds throughout the play, such as door bells and phone call rings. Their creative brilliance keeps you wondering what they will come up with next.

They are very clever, but what the play cries out for is a series of black and white 1938 movie newsreels that broadcast the Hitler-Mussolini meeting to movie houses worldwide. That would enable the small story here to be greatly expanded. Even the dramatic Hitler visit footage available on YouTube would have helped tell the bigger story.

The trouble with the play is that is too dull for too long. The pair has a hard time turning this movie into a drama. Vega and Graham are hard working professionals and do make Antoinette and Gabriel intriguing characters. They show the bitter animosity towards gays in 1938 and the fraudulent face Italians put on fascism, but that is not enough.

It’s a shame, too, because Hitler’s visit was an historic event in the days before World War II and all the play has of it are a series of short radio broadcasts that crackle out over a barren set.

Hitler had taken over Austria just before he was invited to Rome by Mussolini, Il Duce, as a follow up of his own visit to Germany in 1937. Hitler arrived May 3 with several hundred Nazi officials and journalists. The Fuehrer and his colleagues stayed in Rome through May 8 and then left for Florence. While in Rome, Hitler was given parades in which hundreds of thousands of wildly cheering onlookers lined the motorcade route. He was feted again and again by huge crowds at public ceremonies and, always, surrounded by thousands of troops. The Italians decorated the streets and buildings of the city with huge swastikas and, for the visit, named one of Rome’s streets Via Adolf Hitler.

A year later, Mussolini and Hitler signed a treaty that made them allies in the war that was a year up ahead.

Graphically, Working: A Special Day should have done far more with the Hitler visit and given the audience a lot more 1938 history than just a few short radio broadcasts.

PRODUCTION: Produced by 59 E 59th Street Theaters, The Play Company and the Por Piedad Teatro Foundation. Sets: Gabriel Pascal and David Arsenault, Sound: Rodrigo Espinosa and William Neal. The play is directed by Graham and Vega.

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