Inspired by the stormy real-life romance between Italian actress Eleonora Duse and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, Brandon Cole’s Imperfect Love, which opened this afternoon at the Connelly Theater, is a rather unfortunate imperfect storm of inconsistent acting, a mind-boggling plot, confusing dialogue, and confounding direction. In 1899 Rome, playwright Gabriele Torrisi (Rodrigo Lopresti) is furiously working away on his latest tale, being staged at the grand Teatro Argentina. His girlfriend and star, Eleonora Della Rosa (Cristina Spina), offers suggestions; they argue hotly; finally, they are joined by the rest of the company, debonair leading man Domenica (Aidan Redmond) and a pair of clowns, Marco (Ed Malone) and Beppo (David O’Hara), who serve as comic relief, à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as a kind of Greek chorus by way of Waiting for Godot. All know that their play is in trouble, and they feel especially threatened by the growing popularity of dramas by up-and-comers Anton Chekhov and August Strindberg. “Is it my fault the critics hated my play and you in it?” Gabriele says to Rosa. As they work on trying to fix it, it is often hard to determine whether they are having genuine tiffs about their offstage relationship or are improvising new lines of dialogue, whether what they are saying is part of the play or the play within the play (and maybe even the play within the play within the play, or something like that). Domenica and Rosa consider moving on to perform an Ibsen play, while Gabriele floats the idea of his going to Paris to work with Sarah Bernhardt, whom Rosa loathes. Meanwhile, Marco and Beppo reveal an innate knowledge of theater as they add their own theories in order to save Gabriele’s play and keep their jobs.
Cole started working on Imperfect Love in 1984, then teamed up with his longtime friend and collaborator, John Turturro, to turn it into the 1998 film Illuminata, which they cowrote. It was directed by Turturro, who starred as a playwright named Tuccio who was having issues with his latest play and his actress girlfriend, Rachel. Cole (Nothing Works, Pete Smalls Is Dead) first attempted to bring the play to the stage in 2000, then revised it in 2016, resulting in this world premiere that has inexplicably been extended to February 25 at the small but stately Connelly, a charming former opera house. Oscar winner Gianni Quaranta’s (A Room with a View, La Traviata) sets and period costumes are a bit too klunky (although the miniature model of the set and characters in the lobby is cool), and director Michael Di Jiacomo (Somewhere Tonight, Animals with the Tollkeeper) is unable to rein in the random feel of it all. (And speaking of reining in, what’s with the horse?) Redmond (A Particle of Dread, I Sell the Dead) is stalwart as Domenica, channeling Fernando Rey, and gangly L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq clown-school graduate Malone (The Three Irish Widows Versus the Rest of the World) is fun to watch, but Lopresti (4am Redmond & Meda, I’m Not Me) and Spina (Texts&beheadings / ElizabethR, Kaos) lack any sort of chemistry, so the central romance feels flat and dull, zapping any energy from the play. “Now look here, I never gave up, not on one line no matter how weak it was, I never forced any moment,” Domenica says at one point. Unfortunately, sometimes it is better to just give up.