nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 19, 2006
The first act of Mario Fratti's Sister, which is currently being presented at La MaMa in a capital production staged by Pamela Billig, seems to be about the ways that a young man's attitudes toward love, sex, and responsibility collide and clash with woman's notions of same. You'll note that I said "seems to" just now—that's because in Act Two, the issues of the play change, in a manner that's unexpected and surprisingly pertinent (and, if I were to give more away, I'd ruin the piece for you). Sister turns out to be about the relative nature of relationships: it reminds us that we can't ever know what someone else experiences in any particular pairing, and lets us contemplate the ways that perspectives change when the stakes between two people are dramatically transformed.
There are just three characters in this play, a mother, a daughter (Rosanna), and a son (Carlo). They live together in an apartment in Milan; it's 1964, and the mother, abandoned a long time ago by the now-absent father, keeps house while the two grown children work at jobs. Rosanna is about 40 and stuck in a cycle of bad relationships with men that she attributes to a long-ago romance gone terribly wrong. Carlo, in his early 20s, is just feeling his way around the world of dating and love, and as he reveals in long conversations with both his mother and his sister, he's trying to balance a latent machismo (inherited from his father? somehow programmed into his genes by the Y chromosome?) with more progressive, feminist-type ideas. He is, in short, a very typical sort of guy, learning about women in a household filled with dominant examples of same.
Rosanna is almost reckless in her social habits, staying out all night with strange men who sometimes beat her up when she says "no." Carlo is very protective of Rosanna, which makes sense under the circumstances: isn't that a natural brother-type thing, anyway?
The mother seems lately to be unusually interested in the sexual habits of her adult children. Most of the first half of Sister consists of dialogues between her and Rosanna and Carlo, in which she is trying to understand more about what they think about sex and love, and perhaps also trying, after all these, to understand what went awry in her own marriage.
In between, some unnamed man keeps calling on the phone.
Fratti cannily shapes Sister as a domestic drama, but it's actually something of a suspense tale, and that's all I will say about that. Director Pamela Billig has staged the play briskly and intriguingly, focusing on various relationships of mother/son, mother/daughter, and brother/sister. The set by Eugene Brogyanyi is effectively spare and impressionistic; Debra Stein's costumes are appropriate and indicative of these particular individuals. Shan Willis and Brian Voelcker offer excellent, well-thought-out performances as Rosanna and Carlo, really letting us inside these people's heads and hearts; their scenes together, especially a climactic one in the second act, are the best in the show. Less successful is Eleanor Ruth's portrayal of the mother, which seemed to me to be more one-note and superficial than it might have been. Had Ruth let us futher into the mind of her character from the outset, some of what follows in the story might have felt more organic.
Fratti—who works as a theatre critic and who, consequently, I have gotten know as we make the rounds seeing various shows all season long—once told me that the most important thing about playwriting is to have a great ending. Sister exemplifies that credo: its ending is a knockout, and I urge you to head over to La MaMa and experience it for yourself.