Albert Innaurato’s plays alternate in their effect from farcical comedy to unrelenting pathos. The consistent aspect of his work is not a matter of genre or formula, but one of theatrical style. Innaurato populates his plays with grotesque misfits, vivid personalities that depart from traditional theatrical types. The settings are drawn from contemporary lower-class dwellings and ground the desires of his sympathetic characters in a run-down atmosphere that predicts their eventual defeat. Actions, too, are frequently grotesque, particularly when the plays’ themes combine death, eating, and debased sexuality. Innaurato’s vision disturbs and fascinates audiences because he has created new voices for the expression of obsessive concerns, new ways to dramatize important themes through characterization. Innaurato’s work is uneven, however, almost equally divided between adeptly constructed scripts that shift cleanly from one scene to the next and plays that diffuse his obsessions into shrill, unfocused energy. If any single work can be said to predict the themes and style of Innaurato’s work, it is John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves (pr. 1971).
Unlike many young playwrights, Innaurato was given little time to develop; instead, his work was consistently condemned as disappointing. Tangential debate over his portrayals of homosexual characters only tended to fuel the critical fire. Yet in retrospect, Innaurato’s achievements are great for such a young writer. Like Tennessee Williams, he developed a personal, slightly grotesque seriocomic style that was rooted in a particular environment. Within this paradigm, he has created a number of good plays, and two outstanding ones: The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie is a kind of miracle of ugliness, and Gemini is the sort of popular comedy that also has the power to change public perceptions. If Innaurato has settled into a pattern with the last plays, it is as a writer of competently constructed domestic comedies with unusual characters. This role may be a disappointment to some critics, but with the state of commercial theater in contemporary America, Innaurato is a writer for whom the public can be grateful—one who should be encouraged to continue.
The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie
The Innaurato hero is usually unhappy, from a depressed family, sexually confused, but in love with beauty. The most concise expression of this character’s unhappiness comes in Innaurato’s The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, perhaps his best work. Benno, “an enormously fat young man,” narrates his story while seated on a stool apart from the main acting area. Benno’s desire for love and beauty, expressed by his passion for great paintings, is contradicted by everything around him. His combative Italian parents ignore and abuse him, his grandfather carries out a sordid affair with a foul young Irish girl, while Benno, eventually raped by a gang of schoolboys, takes solace in eating.
The performance begins with Benno’s announcement that he plans to eat himself to death. The plot then proceeds through a series of flashbacks, which establish in turn the cruelty of his parents, the depravity of his grandfather’s sexual activity, and the incongruity of his passion for art. Much of the story is narrated by Benno, who remains stationary and participates in the flashback action only vocally, altering his voice to indicate youth while the other actors behave as if a Benno figure were present in the scene. This choice to disrupt the conventional structure of the acting event causes the behavior of the other characters toward the phantom Benno to be more noticeable than usual. When they ignore his needs and requests, or send him away, the audience is conscious of the theatrical parallel that objectifies his rejection. Once Benno’s story is complete, Innaurato repeats the first scene; this time, however, Benno adds a gesture with a cleaver, showing that he will literally eat himself—consume his own body until he dies.
Wisdom Amok and Urlicht
The economy of construction and unrelenting plot progression in The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie are especially impressive when compared with Innaurato’s other early works, such as Wisdom Amok, Urlicht, and Earth Worms. In the first two of these plays, Innaurato’s anti-Catholic feelings are so virulent that the plays surrender any pretension of credible mimesis to a free-associative, vengeful attack on the Church. Nothing like reality, the plays also fail to achieve any internal, formal coherence, dissolving instead into a disintegrated barrage of images. In Wisdom Amok, there are no sympathetic characters; the action begins with grotesquely disrupted public events, then immerses itself in a sacrilegious madhouse. The power and fascination of charismatic madness were important themes in other plays popular at the time of Wisdom Amok’s composition, such as Peter Weiss’s Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter der Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (pr., pb. 1964; Marat/Sade, 1965), but Innaurato’s attempt to explore the plunge of a cleric into insanity and murder sheds no new light on the repressive qualities of religion, nor is his character sufficiently interesting to maintain sympathetic attention. Urlicht is slightly more compact, substituting the extravagance of opera for the decadence of the Church but still surpassing credibility with its grotesque extremes of imagery and action.
In Earth Worms, Innaurato’s work remains diffuse, but the characters evolve along with the dramatic events to create a number of unique, fascinating personalities. The most flamboyant of these characters is Bernard, an aged transvestite and retired English professor who takes the dominant role in the action, performing a Pygmalion-like transformation on the central female. This character, Mary, who reappears in Passione as Aggy, is an uneducated young Appalachian woman who becomes mature enough eventually to push the other crippled characters away. Innaurato’s trademark of sexual confusion is stamped not only on the professor but also on Arnold, Mary’s serviceman husband. He brings her back to his childhood home, now grown filthy and decayed, then abandons her when his guilt over the death of their child overcomes him. These roles and a few others make Earth Worms a fascinating play for actors, and its challenges have been met in the professional production by Robert Goldsby at the Berkeley Stage Company.
The anti-Catholic theme is communicated in a different, symbolic mode in Earth Worms. Nuns who resemble Furies or the witches from Macbeth terrorize the husband and perform actions that reflect back on the play’s dramatic events. The most terrifying of these is the surreal dance they perform with the dead infant impaled on a cross. Innaurato’s alternation of these horrible symbolic gestures with squalid realistic scenes provides a loose form that supplies striking effects almost at random.
In Gemini, Innaurato deals with a similar group of people but shows them at an earlier age, when their environment is less decayed, their dreams still intact. This shift, accompanied by the change into a quick, complex, but more conventionally comic dialogue structure, transforms the same themes and grotesque character images into the material of farce. The audience, no longer directly addressed by a Benno figure, gains some perspective on the action; this distance from the bizarre world of Italian south Philadelphia is at least partially supplied by the introduction of two visitors from Harvard. The consternation of these attractive outsiders at the rude characters and strange twists of action guides the audience’s response. In addition, Innaurato finally omits his obsessive, distracting attack on Catholicism, allowing full attention to be focused on the construction of the play itself.
The title character of the play, Francis Geminiani, is probably the most autobiographical hero in the playwright’s first group of plays. A young Harvard (not Yale) student whose name...
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