Soapy Light in the Piazza: This Amoré Is Kind of Creepy

As far as I know, Lincoln Center Theater is the only theater in the world to ask the audience before the show to turn off their hearing aids if using an infrared hearing device. No offense-but what does that tell us? It tells us the folks at Lincoln Center are extremely thoughtful. I SAID IT TELLS US THE FOLKS AT LINCOLN CENTER ARE EXTREMELY THOUGHTFUL.

At least it’s refreshing of them to make the ritual pre-show announcements in Italian. Why Italian? Well, Adam Guettel’s musical at the Vivian Beaumont, The Light in the Piazza, is set in Florence.

Si, bene. But the cute-ish idea is the wrong, frolicsome note for the show that follows, as if the Italian language itself automatically made the mundane irresistibly charming. One of the flaws of Light in the Piazza-which is also sung partly in Italian until Mr. Guettel abandons his own gimmicky convention-is that it presumes authentic feeling in the clichéd way that all stage Italians are romantic and passionate and wear great shoes.

It’s said by some, with an understandable sense of relief, that Light in the Piazza, with a book by Craig Lucas, is at least about adult human beings. True, it’s no Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Compared to craven jukebox junk like All Shook Up, it’s a work of genius. But how adult this romantic soap opera really is-and how human-is open to question.

Lincoln Center seems to have a taste for overwrought 50’s romances set in Italy. (The revival of Arthur Laurents’ 1952 Venetian potboiler, Time of the Cuckoo, with its plaintive cries in the night of “Gondola, Gondola!” comes to mind, unfortunately.) The Light in the Piazza is based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 romantic novella of the same name, and it’s about a middle-aged, thoroughly middle-class tourist from Winston-Salem, Mrs. Margaret Johnson, who’s visiting Florence with her 26-year-old daughter, Clara. Trouble ensues when the sweet, impressionable girl and the impetuous, handsome 20-year-old Fabrizio fall in love at first sight.

“Something” isn’t quite right about Clara. Mrs. Johnson is hiding a dark secret: Her daughter is brain-damaged, though we’re asked to accept that it might not seem that way in one so sweetly naïve and innocent.

It’s asking a lot. When Clara was 10, her pony kicked her in the head, and she was left with “a 10-year-old mind in a 26-year-old body.” The implications are tragic, possibly erotic. But I’m afraid that Mr. Guettel’s lush orchestrations and bittersweet Sondheimean regrets present the issues as old-fashioned melodrama.

Will the conscience-stricken mother allow Clara to marry the smitten, unknowing Fabrizio? Will the young lovers run away together like Romeo and Juliet in Verona? Why doesn’t Fabrizio’s proud father, Signor Naccarelli, the bespoke Florentine haberdasher, notice anything is wrong with Clara? Why doesn’t anyone else? Why does the genteel Mrs. Johnson fancy Signor Naccarelli? (Well, he’s dashingly Italian.) Why does Signor Naccarelli fancy Mrs. Johnson? (Dunno.) But why did Mr. Guettel and Mr. Lucas choose this subject for a musical?

How could anyone begin to convey a child trapped in a woman’s body? An authentically damaged Clara would be impossible to act or sing. But a faux Clara, a sweetly “childlike” Clara, passes nicely on Broadway. The same “slow” types are “touchingly portrayed” in Hollywood movies. Clara’s problems aren’t specified in Light in the Piazza until a belatedly brief reality check from Mrs. Johnson’s disapproving husband, who’s back home in Winston-Salem. Dad understands the dangers and the deception. But the creators of the musical avoid the real issues as much as the muddled, sentimental Mrs. Johnson.

The 26-year-old, “intellectually impaired” Clara-as The New Yorker coyly describes her in another act of avoidance-doesn’t appear to be trapped in childhood, a potential danger to herself and others.  She’s presented as a beautiful young woman who’s “special.”

She could be any twentysomething given to occasional temper tantrums because she’s dominated by an overprotective, smothering mother. The songs Mr. Guettel has written for her are adult and knowing, for a 10-year-old. Visiting the Uffizzi with Mom, Clara stares at the penis of a headless statue:

It’s the land of naked marble boys

Something we don’t see a lot in

            Winston-Salem

That’s the land of corduroys.

Is it? Is it the land of corduroys? But the 20-year-old Fabrizio is presented as “childlike,” like Clara. Blissfully unaware of her real mental age, he fears that she will never love “a little boy” like him. Far from being an adult musical, Light in the Piazza is that tired excuse for simplemindedness-a celebration of the “child within.”

“Fabrizio sighs,” goes the breathless stage direction. “He is in real, constant, worsening and unassuageable pain, the pain of love.” And so he sings in unassuageable Italian:

Clara

Clara

Clara, mia luce, mio cor.

There are no supertitles in Light in the Piazza. For the benefit of readers whose Italian is a little rusty, I’ll translate:

Clara

Clara

Clara, my light, my heart.

O Clara

Non amera un ragazzino

Non può amare un ragazzino.

O Clara

She won’t love a little boy

She cannot love a little boy.

Now you know why they don’t have supertitles.

It’s enough for the songs in Italian to sound-come si dice in Inglese?-very Italian. Nor are things-eternally romantic, dopey things-improved by the babble of broken English when everything sounds lika beeg pizza pie.

Si, e vero. Clara eeza-‘ow you sayz?-so passionata! E cosi innocente! Grazie, no probleme. Prego, Signora. Come stai? Have a nice day. You lika cappuccino with zucchero? Excelente! I like vino rosso. Would you lika una passeggiata con me? Que sera, sera! Doris Day. Que bella! Bellissima Americana! Le chat est sur la table. Winston-Salem eez land of corduroy. Si, bene! Have you turned off your hearing aid yet? We cannot waita for tomorrow. Tomorrow, eet has to be now. Si, I like Gucci, too. Turn left at Ferragamo. Ciao!

Be that as it may, Bartlett Sher’s production is most elegant, with Michael Yeargan’s beckoning, melting courtyards and Catherine Zuber’s stylish 1950’s costumes. The piece is well sung by all, and there’s a particularly fine central performance from the restrained and compassionate Victoria Clark as Mrs. Johnson.

But, in her confused efforts to overlook her daughter’s real condition for the sake of juvenile romantic love, Mrs. Johnson herself is a foolish woman. Adam Guettel’s Sondheimean Light in the Piazza isn’t really new, least of all modern. It’s as dated as the soothing “women’s novels” of our grandparent’s generation. It doesn’t excite us. It keeps promising to move us. It’s soap.

Soapy Light in the Piazza: This Amoré Is Kind of Creepy