Marta Mondelli’s Toscana, or What I Remember begins as the story of two couples whose lives intersect at a hotel in Tuscany in the middle of February. Each is tortured in his or her own right. It starts interestingly enough with Emma (Mondelli herself), an Italian who has been living in New York, and her husband, Fred (Scott Barton), who is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. To say they annoy each other is an understatement. Emma, who often hears a little girl singing and playing, is neurotic, bitter, and foul-mouthed. If she loves Fred, it’s hard to tell. “All of a sudden he gets in this stupid chair, and I have to carry him around like a baby in a stroller,” she complains.
The second couple, “Sue and Larry Cole from Wisconsin,” played by Nicole Kontolefa and Lance Olds, add a bit of lightness to the play initially, but not for long. Larry is a botanist visiting Italy for a conference, while the pregnant Sue annoys him by frequently apologizing to him. He detests the phrase “I’m sorry” so much that she ends up apologizing repeatedly, a gag that should have been funny. Though not as unpleasant as Emma and Fred are to each other, the Coles are wound tight. Sue becomes a little unnerved that she’s forgotten her sunblock—even though it’s 50 degrees in February! Larry is concerned about his speech at the conference. “Hopefully, no one will scream at me today,” he says. “Plant scientists are so conservative.” The typical Midwestern characters are written in a way that suggests it’s their first trip abroad.
Kontolefa, however, exhibits a range of emotion. She begins as an awkward young wife, concerned about her pregnancy. But her Sue is either afraid of Larry or afraid of losing him. When confronted with the possibility that her husband and Emma may have kissed, she displays a strength that shows a depth of character, losing any previous hints of schoolgirl silliness.
Director Tara Elliott keeps things moving along smoothly. However, she was not able to elicit from the actors the subtleties necessary to portray Fred and Emma convincingly. Playwright Mondelli was unable to flip the switch from neurotic and mean-spirited to loving and doting for the bipolar Emma. Barton was only able to move off the emotion of exasperation when he had dialogue with Sue about her pregnancy.
Furthermore, Mondelli’s script is underdeveloped. Too many times the conversations come off as inane cocktail conversation and unnervingly repetitive. Emma asks Sue, “How far along are you?” and she replies, “Ten weeks.” Emma retorts, “How many months is that?” Or Larry’s insipid argument that plants don’t respond to music but yet “they communicate to each other through electricity.” When Sue wants to push Fred in his wheelchair, Larry interjects, “Sue, you’re weak.” No, she’s pregnant; since it’s already been revealed that he’s been through one pregnancy with his first wife, why would he jump to “weak” when there is nothing in the script to suggest it?
On the other hand, there are elements that complicate the story that Mondelli leaves undeveloped. For instance, there’s the recurring sound of a child singing offstage—while appropriate to hear the child singing before the play begins, which sets the tone, it makes little sense during the play for the audience to hear the child, given a turn of events late in the production. Although Emma repeatedly swears at the child, which paints her as callous, there’s a persuasive twist that comes too late to redeem her.
Oddly, there is something to Toscana, which is probably what brought it to the stage in the first place. However, it wasn’t nurtured and developed to its full potential, which can happen when the playwright is also cast as the lead. Surprisingly, after all that, the play resonated more the next day than immediately after. Maybe the dust had to settle on too much unfinished, stilted dialogue to get to the heart of Toscana in the moment.
Toscana, or What I Remember is at Cherry Lane Studio (38 Commerce St. in Greenwich Village) through Oct. 1. Performances are at 7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; Matinees are at 2 p.m. Sept. 25 and 3 p.m. Oct. 1. Tickets are $18 general admission and $15 for students/seniors. For tickets, go to https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/963985. For more information, visit toscanaorwhatiremember.com.