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THEATER REVIEW

Curiosity Gets the Best of Them

Pirandello's 'So It Is! . . .' offers a mischievous take on gossip vs. reality.

March 20, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Anyone who has ever enjoyed gossip knows that guessing at other people's secrets is not merely a guilty pleasure, it's a hallucinogen--conveying the powerful illusion that one is figuring out the world.

Luigi Pirandello tackles the hat trick that gossip makes of truth in his mischievous, rarely done play "So It Is! . . . If So It Seems to You," now in a smart new production at A Noise Within in Glendale. Usually translated as "Right You Are, If You Think You Are," "So It Is!" has been outfitted with a poetic translation by Robert Cornthwaite that is also straightforward, tough and funny. While not as robust and mind-bending an experience as Pirandello's more famous "Six Characters in Search of an Author," this 1917 pseudo-detective story has its pleasures, and its sensibility prefigures J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" and the novels of Paul Auster. The play also makes a remarkably relevant guide to the psychological perils of bearing witness to two O.J. Simpson trials.

The Agazzi household is in an uproar. Councilor Agazzi is a strutting, smug burgher, beautifully played by Walter Williamson, who was the booming voice of Monty Woolley. His wife (Mary Kay Wulf) and niece (Gail Shapiro) paid a call on their new neighbor, and the old woman refused to see them. The old woman is Signora Frola (June Claman), and she is mother-in-law to a new Agazzi employee Signor Ponza (Richard Soto). She lives separately from Ponza and his wife, a woman who no one ever sees go out.

Gossip about the Ponza family's strange ways begins to bring the townspeople together, and soon visitors are rushing to the Agazzis' home to talk. A little information only inflames everyone's curiosity. The sweet old lady appears, polite and meek as can be. She tells the assembled, gaping guests that her family has been through enormous tragedy; they've lost their entire village in some terrible disaster. Her son-in-law, she says, is touched in the head, and she stays away from his household to help protect his sanity and so as not to threaten his jealousy, which also explains why his wife never goes out. That satisfies everyone until Ponza himself shows up and says the old woman is completely mad, that she's been following him and his second wife around since the death of her daughter, Ponza's first wife.

These two contradictory stories foment an obsession in the Agazzis and their friends. They must know the truth, but every new bit of information only frustrates them further. Standing in the center of the vortex is Lamberto Laudisi (Donald Sage Mackay), Agazzi's brother-in-law and seemingly a visitor from a post-Modernist universe. Laudisi stands in the middle of the crowd, says things like, "You think you can know the truth?," and then throws back his head and laughs uproariously. His function in the drama--to explain things to a 1917 audience new to ideas about relativity--seems quaint now, and it is not helped by Mackay's mannered performance. But Laudisi is still an interesting artifact from a time when Pirandello was trying to bring to the stage the same ideas about splintering reality that Picasso and Braque were painting on canvases.

Thomas Buderwitz's Italianate sitting room looks right, as does the uniformity of the large cast, with everyone acting in the same slightly hyperbolic, slightly comic style. Occasionally, an element jars--David DeSantos plays a young servant who has the gall to shake his head at a guest's stupidity--but overall director Neil Vipond has created a strict universe that serves the play well.

With ingenious circumvolution, Pirandello shows that the ideal of truth that is driving the townspeople into a frenzy is a complete illusion, and that their rapid curiosity is more destructive than any disaster that has already befell the Ponza family. In mounting this play, A Noise Within has provided a fascinating entry from the birth of modernism. The distance only shows that, no matter how much sophisticated vocabulary we've picked up over the years about the nature of truth, nothing can quench our insatiable, undignified need to know.

BE THERE

"So It Is! . . . If So It Seems to You," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, Friday-Saturday, March 26-27, 8 p.m.; March 30, 7 p.m. Call for April-May dates. Ends May 3. $20-$24. (818) 546-1924. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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