Arioso con brio

Candida and Her Friends

By Mario Fratti
Directed by Michael Hillyer
Theater for the New City
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Julie Halpern

Playwright Mario Fratti is best-known for Nine, a Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Fellini's film 8 1/2. Most theatergoers, however, are unaware of the large number of plays Fratti has written, ranging in subject matter from AIDS to Che Guevara to his most recent effort - Candida and Her Friends - a contemporary screwball comedy.

Paul, a  shy, introverted professor of Latin and Italian languages who has prided himself on his ability to instill the love of knowledge in his students, is shocked to realize that a number of his former pupils remember him in an entirely different light. A chance encounter reunites him with Candida, a formerly timid student whom he taught nine years earlier. Candida has blossomed into a feral sexual adventuress who attempts to seduce the unsuspecting Paul. Candida claims that Paul's embracing of the statement "carpe diem" (seize the day) was the key to unleashing her sexual energy. Paul is soon visited by Candida's classmate Nancy, who has since become a nun. Both women credit Paul with molding them into the women they became. Paul is later approached by a current student, Kenia, a beautiful young African-American woman who is failing his class. Despite her academic shortcomings, Kenia is determined to graduate, and believes that seducing Paul will solve her problems. Adding to the strange mix is a transvestite named Rudolph, a roommate of Candida and her husband who also shows interest in Paul.

Fratti deserves high praise for his light, breezy script, which he kept clean and fun, never deteriorating into obscenity. Director Michael Hillyer was obviously in tune with Fratti's vision, and encouraged his mostly excellent cast to explore the depths of their offbeat characters while maintaining the humor of Fratti's playful text.

Caroline Strong was a glamorous and witty Candida, while Alex McCord displayed an intriguing mix of earthy sensuality and cool purity as Nancy. Toks Olagundoye was a lively, attractive Kenia. Neil Levine was amusing in his short stage time as Rudolph the cross-dresser. The only weak link was Brian Runbeck's Paul. Runbeck successfully captured Paul's keen intellect, but didn't convey the passion most scholars have for their subject, coming across as bland and asexual. It was difficult to imagine his having the effect on his beautiful students that was the driving force of the play.

Mark Symczak's set was simple and serviceable, with a unique backdrop of what looked like a wall of college yearbook photos - all of them female.  Roi "Bubi" Escudero's fashionable costumes looked great on the attractive cast, and Jason A. Cina's lights created an intimate ambience. Operatic recordings of Luciano Pavarotti added to the fun.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 Julie Halpern