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STAGE REVIEW

We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!

A quest for food

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
ARTS EDITOR

Written by Dario Fo

Directed by Andrei Belgrader

With Marisa Tomei, Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow, Caroline Hall, Ken Cheeseman

At American Repertoire Theatre through October 5

Tickets $24-$57

More information at (617) 547-8300 or at <http://www.amrep.org>

It would be nice to have a slapstick comedy that was actually about something, a madcap farce with a point, a play where the laughter and meaning would be so tightly integrated that it would be impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!, however, is not such a play. The current American Repertoire Theatre production, written by Dario Fo (the winner of 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature) and starring, as a part of its small ensemble cast, Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, it is consistently amusing -- and nothing more. When it tries to be funny, it usually succeeds, to a modest degree. When it tries to make a point, it frequently does so, with commendable lucidity, although it falls too much on the preachy side. But the connections between these two aspects of the play are so tenuous that the transitions from laughter to sociology feel abrupt and forced, tearing the play apart at its seams.

Fo’s comedy, both written and set in 1970s Italy, is about a time when inflation was rampant, prices increased daily, and the working classes were getting more and more hungry -- both literally, for food, and metaphorically, for change. The tempers flare; the supermarkets are looted; the police search houses for stolen food. Enterprising Antonia (Marisa Tomei) is soon faced with the problem of hiding all this newly acquired food, which is now merely incriminating evidence. Some of the loot goes under the bed; some (the less edible part of it, like canary seed) is fed to her rather dense husband Giovanni (Thomas Derrah). The rest is donated to Antonia’s friend, Margherita (Caroline Hall), who carries it under her dress, suddenly looking pregnant. Soon, the two women are forced to maintain their elaborate charade in the face of Giovanni, Margherita’s husband Luigi (Ken Cheeseman), and several representatives of the law (all played by Will LeBow). Hilarity ensues.

Frankly speaking, “hilarity” is probably too strong a word; I laughed aloud only here and there, since the characters’ antics rarely become truly inspired. Most of the time, the play proceeds along, being consistently amusing, but the jokes almost never form a cascading avalanche of gags, with each building on a previous one.

The main suspect here is the lack of comic timing: We Won’t Pay! generally feels slow, with almost each gag being obvious long before the punch line (some gags take over an hour to develop). Numerous scenes require that the characters behave like particularly dim bulbs, paying a lot of attention to their environment and yet fastidiously missing what’s directly in front of them. A similar (related) problem is that the events generally proceed too slowly.

Usually, it’s the director who’s to blame for the pacing problems, but in this case I believe the fault lies with the play. There’re just entirely too few events in the play, and entirely too much dialogue surrounding them. However fast the actors are directed to deliver dialogue, and however inventive the stage actions are, there’s no hiding the fact that it takes quite a bit of time between the moments when something actually happens.

In general, the direction seems to be working better than the script. The most amazing moments are the first and the last five minutes. In the beginning, a faux lounge singer shifts from “Fly Me to the Moon” to “Our Love is Here to Stay” to “Santa Lucia” -- thus, smoothly moving the ambience from the America of today to the America of the past to the Italy of the past. This transition is crowned by a neat gag involving a model of a Leaning Tower of Pisa on stage. The ending is equally an eyefull, being loose, inventive, and funny, and the fact that it doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the play is not detrimental in the least.

The rest of the direction is adequate, once in a while producing a small comic gem. When director Andrei Belgrader directs Shakespeare as postmodern circus, it is hit and miss; but this approach works very well in a light comedy.

The cast works fine, and Tomei’s heavily advertised part is merely a piece of an ensemble cast, out of which nobody in particular stands out. The reason for this is probably that there are no real characters on the stage to speak of: all of them are mutually indistinguishable stick figures, used merely to advance the plot (the only character distinction is the gender one, and I think it’s there only because it’s essential to the plot). One possible exception is Will LeBow, who not only plays four characters, but also manages to imbue them with at least some character traits.

The only real distractions are extended, earnest, where-did-this-come-from? speeches that some of the characters deliver. It’s hard to argue with Fo’s philosophy here, but I dearly wish that he dramatized his subtext rather than had it delivered explicitly. The result is that his story and his meaning are fighting -- instead of supporting -- each other.