Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the February 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Venecia’

As everyone knows, Venecia, also known as Venice, is

a real place. It’s in Italy. But in Jorge Accame’s play

"Venecia,"

it is something much more. It achieves a romantically mythical status;

it becomes a place where dreams come true. Like other famous

mythologized

places (Oz, Camelot, Iowa) it represents all that is beautiful, good,

romantic, and (most importantly) untainted by reality.

On the other hand, Chita Rivera is a real person. Although you

wouldn’t

know it to look at her (she is as sleek as a woman half her age),

she is exceedingly grounded in reality, and that is one of the secrets

of her great success. It is simply amazing to see such a vital

performer

steeped in professionalism and beauty perform at such a high level,

in the American premiere of a new play, three weeks past her 68th

birthday. She acts beautifully, dances with delicate precision, and

steals every scene she is in. She is an enchantress.

There is no getting around the fact that she is the very best reason

to see the George Street Playhouse production of "Venecia."

But she is not the only reason.

"Venecia" is a play on the move. It has been or will be,

performed

in over 12 countries around the globe. Initially written by Jorge

Accame, it had been running for three years in Buenos Aires by the

time Arthur Laurents came upon it. After acquiring the rights,

Laurents

utilized his free hand in adapting the play to American tastes.

It is being billed as a comic fable about three kind-hearted

Argentinean

prostitutes (played by Dana Brooke, Catherine Curtin, and Joanna

Glushak),

all deeply grateful to their aged blind madam, called La Vieja (Chita

Rivera), for her kindness in plucking them from the streets of Jujuy

(pronounced hoo-hooey), a small town in Northern Argentina, and

employing

them in her run-down brothel. La Vieja’s dream has always been to

travel to Venice, Italy, to reunite with her lost soulmate, Don

Giacomo

(Tom Flynn). It seems that many years before, in the midst of a great

mutual love affair, La Vieja stole Don Giacomo’s gold coins, thus

ending the affair. But now, as old age advances and death approaches,

she realizes her mistake and seeks to once again melt into his

romantically

forgiving arms that reside, attached to his body, all the way across

the ocean in Venecia.

But there is no money for such an expensive trip, so the kind-hearted

prostitutes, aided by their frequent customer Chato (Paolo Andino),

concoct a scheme to fool La Vieja into believing she is flying off

to Italy, when in fact she merely sits in an old metal chair perched

atop a couple of old wooden crates. It is easy to do, of course,

because

she is blind, and they’re only doing it because they love her and

want to fulfill her dream. But true to form, a miracle happens, La

Vieja’s dream is lived out, and everyone’s life changes for the

better.

The play itself is saccharine-sweet, and reads like a cross between

a "Disney-fied" fairy tale and an old "Three’s

Company"

script. (Warning — there is a preponderance of lame penis jokes

that are truly grating. You see, Chato enters carrying a small

electric

organ and — you get the picture.) Also, the "F-word" is

sprinkled throughout the script, perhaps in an effort to beat back

the persistent sentimentality. It doesn’t work. The characters as

written have little depth, particularly the prostitutes, who are

virtually

indistinguishable from one another. They are all

smart-mouthed-but-loving

beneath a harsh exterior. Together, they’re like one big TV family.

Laurent’s direction is certainly competent. He gets his characters

to convey important information nonverbally, by using body postures

and positions. As the play opens, we know immediately that the three

young women are prostitutes by the way he seats them on their chairs

— with their legs spread as wide open as discarded clamshells.

There is a slightly mechanical air to this production as characters

move about the stage like inflexible chess pieces, uttering well-timed

wisecracks, waiting for their time at center stage.

James Youmans contributes an excellent set design. The pale browns

and smatterings of chipped paint of the brothel, coupled with the

wide open spaces set between objects, perfectly transmit the

timelessness

of sun-scorched isolation. David Lander’s lighting design is also

first rate, spreading itself across the expanse of the stage and

underscoring

the play’s broad comedy when needed, and tightening down to nurture

the play’s more intimate moments. In this way he also bridges the

gap between reality and fantasy that the play must depend on to

succeed.

"Venecia" is well-crafted, light entertainment, adequately

realized. But Chita is the star, and it is an honor to see her

perform.

— Jack Florek

Venecia, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Directed and adapted by Arthur Laurents.

To March 11. $24 to $40.


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