‘Wives’ and ‘The Academy’ Illustrate Battle of Sexes From Postwar and Now

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From October 8 to 25, 2015, Theater for the New City will present the world premiere of a new play by Mario Fratti, “Wives,” in a double-bill with his breakthrough play, “The Academy.”

Taken together, the two plays illustrate the changing nature of the battle of the sexes between the postwar period and now. The two-part evening is directed by actor/director Stephan Morrow, who plays the instructor of a school for gigolos in “The Academy.”

In “The Academy,” it’s 1950 Venice and amid the postwar nihilism and defeat, a reactionary professor has organized an ‘academy’ to teach young Italian men how to seduce and exploit American women. The six young gigolos who are his students are not the helpless loafers we know from Fellini’s “I Vitelloni.” Rather, they are enterprising punks, most bearing names that were commonly given to babies of the period (Afro, Benito, Corso, Donato, Elio) in praise of Mussolini’s regime. All owe a curious debt to the Professor’s wife, who oddly represents the postwar nation as reflected in the character of a woman.

“The Academy” was originally produced by Lucille Lortel at Theatre De Lys in 1963; in the cast were Ron Liebman and Jacqueline Brooks. It is drawn from that minority of Fratti’s plays that were initially written in Italian. (Now he writes entirely in English.) The play was published in “Masterpieces of the Modern Italian Theatre” and its success put Fratti on the map of the best European playwrights. The play’s Professor, who trains the young men in the sympathetic tactics to conquer vulnerable American dowagers, will be played in this production by director Stephan Morrow. Other casting is incomplete as of this writing.

“Wives,” the world premiere, was written in 2013-14 and offers a contrasting view of American women. Instead of being victimized by an opportunistic man, they are firmly in control and even vengeful in their role as women scorned. The setting of the play is contemporary New York. An insecure soon-to-be fourth wife of a self-centered, selfish, spoiled older man visits his beautiful, divorced wife number three, hoping to investigate how to make him happy. It turns out that Number 3 is a member of a “league of past wives” who have learned to check his manipulations sternly and effectively.

Compared to “The Academy,” “Wives” displays a definite power shift in the battle of the sexes. Giulia Bissonella plays the divorced wife, Carlotta Brentan plays the fiancee. Both appeared last year in Fratti’s “Six Passionate Women” at TNC.

Mario Fratti (www.mariofratti.com), a prolific playwright and drama critic, was born in Italy but has been living in New York since 1963. His plays have been performed in more that 700 theaters in 19 languages. Among his best known works are “Cage,” “Victim,” Eleonora Duse,” “Mafia,” “Return,” Academy,” “Lovers,” “Sister,” “Che Guevara,” “Bridge,” “Porno,” “Six Passionate Women,” “A.I.D.S.,” “Seducers” and “Madame Senator.” Broadway audiences know him as author of the adaptation of Fellini’s film “8½” that became “Nine,” the now-legendary Broadway musical that grabbed five Tony awards and eight Drama Desk awards. His book, “28 Unpredictable Plays by Mario Fratti,” has been published by New York Theatre Experience. His first 20 plays were written in Italian. The next 71 were written in English. Fratti says, “I prefer the English language in theater because it is monosyllabic and it is a powerful language for the stage.”

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Stephan Morrow (foreground) plays the instructor of a school for Gigolos in The Academy (1963) by Mario Fratti. Behind (LR): Tucker Lewis, Kate Rose Reynolds, Michael Striano, Taylor Petracek, Kellan Peavy, Nick Palazzo. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

He enjoys working at Theater for the New City with producer/artist/director Crystal Field “because she does not know the word censorship. She always allows my approach to political dramas.” It’s an interesting historical footnote that Fratti’s “Chile ’73” was TNC’s first international production when it was presented in 1974 at the Parma International Theater Festival. He also instigated a theater exchange between Theater for the New City and La Piccola Brigata of L’Aquila-his home town-in the 1988-1989 theater season.

Fratti’s recent Theater for the New City productions include “Trio” (2010), “Quartet” (2011), the double-bill of “Three Sisters and a Priest” and “Suicide Club” (2012), “The Vatican Knows (about the kidnapping of that young woman)” (2013) and”Six Passionate Women” (2014). All five productions were directed by Stephan Morrow.

Director Stephan Morrow relates that the first play he ever acted in as an adult was a Fratti play, “The Cage,” at Manhattan Theater Club, followed closely after by “Her Voice,” which was part of an evening of one-acts by Fratti at The Quaigh Theater. Since then, he has directed six Fratti productions, five of them at TNC. Morrow was mentored into the Playwright Directing Unit of the Actor’s Studio by Elia Kazan. After working on two plays and a film with Norman Mailer, Morrow acted in and directed Mailer’s play, “The Deer Park – Hollywood goes to Hell” in 2007. He has also collaborated closely with Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Lyle Kessler and Murray Schisgal. He has helmed, among many others, “Triangle – The Shirtwaist Triangle Factory Fire” by J. Gilhooley at 59E59St Theaters, readings of Murray Schisgal plays at The Actor’s Studio and TNC, and the theatrical debut of “Dogmouth” by John Steppling at TNC. He directed and acted in the indie film of “Dogmouth,” which has now been invited to five festivals. It won three awards May 7 at The Bergenfield Film Festival, including Best Actor for Morrow. Other awards include the prestigious Award of Merit: Film Feature at The IndieFEST International Film Competition. The film is now being brought to The Cannes Film Festival by a producer/distributor, Marie Adler and Assoc. Morrow is Artistic Director of The Great American Play Series, which presents ‘performances on book’ of neglected American classics featuring prominent actors.

The shows are presented from October 8 to 25, 2015 by Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $10 for seniors and students. Box office is (212) 254-1109. You can find more information and purchase tickets at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.