Albert Innaurato Innaurato, Albert - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albert Innaurato 1948–

American playwright, screenwriter, and director.

Innaurato's works blend naturalism and surrealism and center on the need of all individuals, no matter how unusual or eccentric, to be loved and understood. Many of his characters are grotesques, losers, and misfits, and his situations often border on farce. But Innaurato places serious themes at the core of his plays, despite the madness at their peripheries. He believes contemporary society judges people on the basis of appearance and sexuality, and forces them into competitive situations they are unable to handle. Innaurato feels, however, that people have an intrinsic strength and dignity that enables them to transcend background and environment. He explores the effects of society on emotional life by examining such subjects as sexual dilemmas, prejudice, the loss of the American heroic impulse, and the search for love. Because of his success in depicting these concerns, he is considered one of the most promising talents of the American theater.

Innaurato has said that all of his characters are reflections of himself. Raised in South Philadelphia, the setting of many of his plays, Innaurato was considered a backward child. Because of this experience, he became interested in the problems of those rejected by society. At the age of eight, he began composing opera librettos; several critics have noted the structural similarities between his plays and the opera. Innaurato began his career as a playwright while a teenager. His first major work, the black comedy The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, is based on recollections of parochial school brutality and on the Catholic fixation with suffering; Innaurato saw the play, fully formed, in a nightmare. Benno, a grossly overweight adolescent who literally eats himself to death, is Innaurato's Christlike symbol of the innocent victim of society. Innaurato was praised for his imaginative conception and for the excellence of the play's language; he has since been recognized as a leader in the new emphasis on language in the theater. His next play, Gemini, is a humorous look at sexual identity: Francis, a Harvard student, is unsure whether he is hetero- or homosexual. The appeal of Innaurato's principle and secondary characters, and the sensitivity with which he approaches the issue, won accolades from critics and audiences; however, some homosexual critics found the play inaccurate and offensive. Gemini moved from its initial off-off-Broadway location to off-Broadway to Broadway, where it has become a long-running classic.

None of Innaurato's subsequent plays have equalled the popularity of his earlier works. Though he is not considered an unqualified success, Innaurato is usually perceived as a highly original playwright with a vivid moral vision. Young people appreciate his representations of their doubts and concerns and his satiric stabs at contemporary society.

Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Visions of [Eugene] Ionesco, and especially of [Franz] Kafka, go through our minds as we watch this pitch-black comedy ["The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie"]. In a sense, "Benno" is Mr. Innaurato's "Metamorphosis"—man into bug; everyone is trying to squash Benno.

He is the butt of all insults. He tells—and is—the story. But what the play is really about is the decay of the American family. In comparison, Edward Albee's "The American Dream" and Bruce Jay Friedman's "A Mother's Kisses" seem almost wistful. "Benno" is a nightmare, dreamed by Lenny Bruce….

[Benno] is treated as an object, a slave, forced to observe the defilement of civilization. He is in torment, teetering out of existence. He will explode. Life can not contain him.

Beneath the fat, he is a saintly spirit. The only real human on stage, he is treated inhumanely. The playwright is serious about the "transfiguration." What if Christ were fat and ugly?

Not everyone should see this play. Many will be offended, even insulted, but it has a dramatic and a comic power…. At times, Mr. Innaurato's humor is itself a blunt instrument, but this is not a play one will easily forget.

Mel Gussow, "Stage: 2 Perplexed Men," in The New York Times (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 8, 1976, p. 15.∗

Gautam Dasgupta

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gemini is a] witty and exuberant new play…. It is a world of opposites, a melting pot of differing sensibilities energized by a series of perpetual inversions and transformations.

Appropriately enough, the play is titled after the third sign of the Zodiac, and significantly, in keeping with the twin symbolism of that sign, continually seizes on the nature of dualistic phenomena evidenced in human behavior. Gemini is built on a well-defined pattern that synthesizes opposing polarities. Homosexual and heterosexual longings are counterpoised with one another, while the slim and beautiful is contrasted with the overweight and grotesque. On a more important level, and one that is sensitively handled, there are the opposing forces of life and death, paradiso and inferno, the generational conflict, and the morphological changes in every human experience….

Innaurato groups [his] strikingly eloquent characters in a variety of situations, hilarious in the tradition of many of the old situational comedies one finds on TV reruns. There are moments, luckily very brief, when the playwright refuses to let go of a joke and uses it past its comic purpose, but the willful use of lines and situations repeated twice throughout the play is a structurally relevant device that underscores the twin element of the Zodiac sign….

An exhilarating evening in the theater, Gemini is intelligent, subversive in a humane sense, and ultimately, a sympathetic portrait of life.

Gautam Dasgupta, "Wheel of Transformation," in The Soho Weekly News, December 16, 1976, p. 28.

Carll Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albert Innaurato may have too much talent for his own good.

Much as a playwright may try to resist or ignore it, his or her bones, like an arthritic's, are affected by weather: box-office weather. When an audience is laughing and applauding and leaving the theatre with suffused faces, it is tough to doubt that artistically as well as popularly the hit is palpable. Conversely, a less effervescent audience can't help but seem to imply a less excellent play….

More than most, playwrights love to be loved, and being loved makes them assume they're doing right.

Innaurato has done very much right in Gemini. He has created a credible milieu—a South Philly tenement—and peopled it with brutal caricatures who evolve into brittle characters. With fine-tuned comic instincts, [he] brakes the farce at the brink of excess and dispels heartbreak with pratfalls. I laughed and laughed. And then began looking for the heart of the comedy, the issue….

Sexual ambiguity is adolescent trauma. Drama begins when a person loves for reasons other than what does or doesn't dangle between another's legs. Francis craves Randy and shirks his sister, exclusively because of gender.

Though Innaurato tries to tie Francis's predicament to the human condition by stressing the importance of being who you are and the strangeness, when you come to think of it, of all love matches, he cannot disguise the fact that his theme is biological, not existential. The Innaurato play I want to see is the next one, after Francis has resolved his sexual doubts and gone on to the larger issue of how to live and love meaningfully in the world. I hope Innaurato will resist repeating this too-easy success—it's easy to laugh at adolescents once you've overcome their confusions—and write a play about adults, for adults, that will make adults uneasy by attacking them where they live.

Carll Tucker, "Caricatures Evolve into Characters" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXI, No. 52, December 27, 1976, p. 74.

Alan Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Innaurato … is very young (28), and some of the problems with Gemini stem from a young man's tendency toward untidiness. His play is a romance of an attractively old-fashioned sort, with an overlay of sexual ambivalence that may or may not bring it up to date. His ending, as I saw it, was a copout….

What is brilliant about the work—and it is quite astounding—is the author's immaculate control over the farcical setting into which his romance has been inserted. It all takes place in a two-family backyard in South Philadelphia, where domestic hell is obviously a way of life. If you think of old-time farce, in which climactic situations rise merely from people talking louder, your admiration then must grow for Mr. Innaurato's ability to orchestrate magnificent human tangles without any of this sacrifice of line and clarity. The man can write; his play … is clearly aimed at a far horizon.

Alan Rich, "Dramaturgy and Drama Turgid," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1977 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 10, No. 1, January 3, 1977, p. 95.∗

Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Comparing "Gemini" with opera] has a certain validity. The emotions, even occasionally the voice, are huge. At one point, a character expresses her distaste for opera: "All that screaming. It's not like real life." Actually it is like life in "Gemini." Mr. Innaurato has a tendency toward overstatement, but to reprimand him for that is almost like scolding Kafka for writing about cockroaches. It comes with the territory….

[The] play is a spiraling comedy—a cascade of human frailties, fealties and pretenses. There are mock fainting spells and threatened suicides—the many things that people do to gain attention—and there is uproarious laughter.

Mr. Innaurato … is already a master at surprising us with jarring juxtapositions and seeming contradictions (a violent argument interrupted by the sudden singing of "Happy Birthday") and at staging comic tableaux….

"Gemini" is filled with … infectious moments. It springs with humor—and in the strangest places. Mr. Innaurato is a natural writer, who has a feeling for the precise word that makes a line both spontaneous and genuinely amusing. For example, an absurdly fat boy pleads, "If I promised to lose weight and get less weird, can't we be friends?" Scanning that sentence, we realize that the word "less" is what makes it so funny….

"Gemini" is not as powerful as Mr. Innaurato's "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie."… "Benno Blimpie" is a haunting nightmare. "Gemini" is lighter and more expansive.

The two plays share a sensibility, subject matter and theme. In each we see obsessive characters formed and entrapped by family, background and environment. The plays, opening within days of each other, are conclusive evidence that Mr. Innaurato is a playwright with his own extraordinary voice and the imaginative talent of a conjurer.

Mel Gussow, "Theater: 'Gemini' Is Exceptional," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1977, p. 36.

Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The two plays that are being produced together under the collective title of Monsters have a common theme: the child as freak. But the difference between Albert Innaurato's The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie and William Dews's Side Show is the difference between a real playwright's use of this theme and a wordsmith's clever juggling with it.

Benno Blimpie is a naturalistic family play transposed into the realm of the grotesque, like one of those Jack Levine or Ivan Albright paintings that, walked by casually in a museum, appears to be an innocent urban landscape; only on closer inspection does one see the bleakness of the landscape, the rotting flesh of the figures: The freak emerges naturally from a world that, looked at in a certain light, suddenly seems freakish itself….

Benno Blimpie, though the picture it paints is of total squalor, deals with that squalor honestly….

It is Innaurato's literary sensibility that rescues Benno's story from banal naturalism or Hubert Selbyish clinicality—a matter of stylistic heightening. The cheap squabbling of the parents and the sordid flirtations of the grandfather are turned, by a writer's combination of the overheard and the unexpected, into moments that carry compassion and contempt, pained objectivity and bitter comedy. The naturalistic elements are all in place, but beneath them is heard the violent scream of the grotesque, intensifying everything and making it harsher. Benno's grandiose monologues, similarly, are given their full value in grandeur—this is how he transcends the squalid world around him—without losing any of their pathetic comedy as the hysterical expressions of a badly frightened boy. (p. 81)

[What] emerges from Benno's squalor and freakishness can at least be called dignity, if not tragedy. (p. 83)

Michael Feingold, "The World Is Freakish, Too" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 12, March 21, 1977, pp. 81, 83.

T. E. Kalem

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The play of middling merit fills an evening; the play of lasting merit fills a void. Subtly, or drastically, high drama alters our perception of existence. In this decade, up to now, the most promising young dramatists all seem to fall within the confines of middling merit. What knits some recent playwrights together more excitingly than their works is a sense that they are stage animals prowling their natural and necessary habitat. One such prowling indigene is Albert Innaurato….

In his full-length off-Broadway entry, Gemini, he seems most at ease behind the mask of comedy…. [It] is a zinging display of comic fireworks, most of which explode underfoot….

Gemini is the kind of play the early William Saroyan might have enjoyed or, for that matter, written.

To see Albert Innaurato's sensibility operating from a totally different angle of vision, one needs to attend his one-acter The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie…. In contrast to Gemini, Blimpie is as joyous as a bleeding welt. It is a lacerating look at adolescence….

[Benno Blimpie] is no freak in spirit. In his desperate need for love, his touching vulnerability, and his wistful desire for the approval of other children, he is linked to every human being who ever has been or ever will be born.

T. E. Kalem, "Stage Animal on the Prowl," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1977), Vol. 109, No. 13, March 28, 1977, p. 95.

Catharine Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It makes me just a bit nervous to see new playwrights hailed quite as lavishly as Albert Innaurato…. Even in the current American dramatic desert, it seems advisable to be somewhat careful in meting out excessive praise to talent that is still relatively untried….

That said, there is no denying, and I have no desire to deny, that the 28-year-old Innaurato seems an exceptionally promising dramatist on the basis of two plays that recently opened off-Broadway ["Gemini" and "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie"]. He has an extraordinary ear for dialogue, an ability to create believable characters and a sympathy for those who seldom figure other than peripherally on our stages…. (p. 363)

Catharine Hughes, "New American Playwrights," in America (© America Press, 1977; all rights reserved), Vol. 136, No. 15, April 16, 1977, pp. 363-64.∗

Ross Wetzsteon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[We're witnessing,] especially in the theatre, a caricatured homosexuality, based on defensive pride and sneering hostility.

We have no word that stands in the same relation to homosexuality as "macho" stands to heterosexuality—or rather we have plenty of such words, but they're all so repellent I'd rather invent a neutral one: Let's call this attitude "gayist."…

[Innaurato] seems to me to best exemplify the new gayism….

At first glance, his work seems pre-rather than post-camp—that is, Gemini in particular is conventionally naturalistic, with the gay "problem" dealt with on a straightforward plot level….

What makes it seem...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Earth Worms"] is a black comic version of a rapacious society consuming its young….

"Earth Worms," Mr. Innaurato's most ambitious effort, is the theatrical equivalent of a grand opera—and perhaps it would benefit from a score by a contemporary Puccini. The characters are larger than life, and the play is bigger than the stage at Playwrights Horizon….

[The] play is a nightmare of grotesqueries….

One of the prolems with this play is that too much attention is paid to the exotic background and not enough to the principal characters, an odd triangle composed of a young man in doubt about his sexual identity, his hillbilly bride [Mary] and a 70-year-old...

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Alan Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Earth Worms is an important play. Set, like Gemini and Benno Blimpie, in Innaurato's own South Philadelphia Italian ghetto, it tells a disturbing story about a bride brought in from "outside" and abandoned by a weak husband who cannot outgrow his background. The story is surrounded by ritual, a venomous ballet about narrowminded parochial schools. The play is … imperfect, but so much power comes through that its eventual stature is easy to predict….

Alan Rich, "Sturm und Durang," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1977 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 10, No. 23, June 6, 1977, pp....

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Michael Feingold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Earth Worms] is better thought of as a work-in-progress than as a fully realized creation. Set in what is now the familiar Innaurato stamping ground—the dingy row houses of South Philadelphia—it pulls a group of familiarly unhappy Innaurato people into fantastic shapes, like some horror-comic version of Gemini in which the people have melted down into hideous, viscous blobs that, one is shocked to find, have human feelings even so.

The relatively stable family patterns of Gemini and even Benno Blimpie, like the characters themselves, are here stretched into weirdness. The time is the Korean War. A soldier from South Philly, on duty in Virginia, meets and marries the...

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Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shakespeare may have said that all the world was a stage—not one of his better lines, in fact—but it seems a mistake for Albert Innaurato to go on from there to say that all the world is a graduate school of drama.

It is the central metaphor for "Ulysses in Traction"…. It also allows Mr. Innaurato, when he is not advancing the dramatic action, to get a lot of things off his chest about drama schools.

Some of these things are interesting and some are amusing, but the play is a mess. Mr. Innaurato has his assortment of theater students and teachers trapped in a rehearsal hall during a veritable Armageddon of a race riot….

This entrapment under pressure—a...

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Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The characters [in "Ulysses in Traction"] scuffle and fight and reminisce and make advances—homo- and heterosexual—and generally allow Mr. Innaurato to get quite a lot off his chest on any number of matters. Needless to say of [this author], most of what is on his chest is original and scathing and humorous. Yet in the midst of the fun (much of it intramural theatre about theatre) we are never allowed to forget the unhappiness beneath—everyone except the cleaning woman is a failure and knows it—and the presence of a maimed young man in considerable agony of spirit.

It must be said, regretfully, that "Ulysses in Traction" never jells. Its principal weakness, I think, is that so much of what we...

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Dean Valentine

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If allusions a play made, Albert Innaurato's Ulysses in Traction would be the hit of the off-Broadway season, instead of the puny and lifeless affair that it is. Along with the title's bow to Homer and James Joyce, there are references, verbal or visual, to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear, [Anton] Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, [Luigi] Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Gunter Grass' The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. Doubtless there were others, but the tedious catch-the-writer-quoting game should be saved for English professors. The theatergoer deserves to be enlightened, or at least entertained, not quizzed. And by that test...

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Jennifer Dunning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The credits for "Verna: U.S.O. Girl" … end with the assurance that any resemblance to individuals living or dead is coincidental. It is not likely any such resemblance will be noted….

In an opening scene, the camera sweeps past a war-bonds poster, and we are told it is 1944, but the soldiers' faces lack the lean period flavor of that other generation. None of this would matter if, for more than an instant, the three hapless U.S.O. entertainers could carry us into some tangy private world, but they are stock characters, and that promised glimpse at life in the wings fails to materialize.

Verna Vane … is a stage-struck orphan signed on in last-minute desperation for a U.S.O....

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Rob Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Albert Innaurato is] the most interesting young playwright to emerge on the New York scene in the past ten years….

No one is safe from his barbed wit [onstage]—no racial or ethnic group (including his own, which is Italian), no physical type, no sexual type. This is particularly true with his new work, Ulysses in Traction….

The whole "sexuality question" was first raised by Gemini…. It centers on the sexual crisis of a young twenty-one-year old Harvard student who can't relate to his admittedly beautiful girlfriend because he thinks he has a crush on her younger brother. The crush remains platonic, though when the boy dares him to consummate the pent-up...

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Peter James Ventimiglia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gemini provides proof] that contemporary playwrights often combine traditional material and a contemporary approach. In outline, Gemini has its origins in the "rites of passage" drama of which Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! is an example. The contemporary twist given to this traditional comic situation, however, is to be found in Innaurato's addition of a complexity to the basic plot. His protagonist cannot be entirely certain whether his sexual preferences are heterosexual or homosexual. (p. 201)

From its inception, comedy has been concerned with the search for identity which often accompanies the rite of passage from youth to maturity. Gemini explores the dramatic...

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Martin Duberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I am [not] sure about Albert Innaurato's potential, though most of the critics seem to feel it's unlimited….

Gemini is the better of Innaurato's two works produced in New York this season. That doesn't say much, since the second, Ulysses in Traction, was semidroll trivia, and his teleplay, Verna: USO Girl … was such a mechanical stockpile of romantic clichés that I began to expect a cameo by, or at least a screen credit for, Barbara Cartland. (p. 83)

[Gemini's] artistic merit seems to me dubious….

What follows [Francis's announcement of his sexual dilemma] is a tangled merry-go-round whose outer mechanics Innaurato expertly...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francis [in "Gemini"] is a heterosexual; that is made quite clear from the beginning. What he is going through is a sexual crisis from a heterosexual view. He's having homosexual doubts, which is not unusual among sensitive heterosexuals. In the course of the play, the emphasis is on making relationships or not. In other words, the choice for Francis, in dealing with Judith and Randy, is not whether he is going to fuck one or another, but, how is he going to continue developing relationships despite problems. In both instances Francis' first instinct is to go into his room and put on Maria Callas. And, the choice he makes is not between being straight or gay—which I think is irrelevant … I'm way past the...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albert Innaurato is too young to be cannibalizing himself, even if eating and overeating are leitmotifs in his dramaturgy. In Passione, he is at it again….

The seven characters passionately love, hate, or love and hate one another. The play is taken up with bouts of lovemaking, fisticuffs, and eating of every sort, from the most voracious to the barely nibbling. There is also conspicuous consumption of wine and coffee. Gutter philosophy and bed-sheet dialectics abound. Haters become lovers and vice versa; friends fall out vehemently and are vehemently reconciled. Everyone blames everyone else for having ruined his life. Or for having saved it…. It is all full of every kind of...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Albert Innaurato] is one of the most brilliant iconoclasts of the American theater. In "Passione," as in "Gemini" and "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie," Mr. Innaurato pays lip service to kitchen-sink realism, but, for him, reality is merely an elastic means to a cockeyed end. This man is an artist, not a documentarian. He is driven—compulsively, breathlessly—to remake a familiar, even clichéd world into a new and often hilarious place of his own startling design.

"Passione" … is far from a total success, but its first act is vintage Innaurato. It is there that we find the playwright's feverish sensibility twisting a seemingly commonplace ethnic family into all sorts of bizarre...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Let me hope that Albert Innaurato intends his Passione to be farce with some serious overtones rather than a significant statement about life couched in farcical terms. Taken as pure knockabout farce—with one character literally knocked all over the stage—Passione gives modest but fairly consistent delight, the wild swings made up for by riotous haymakers. But when it goes serious, it has serious problems.

The play covers familiar Innaurato territory topographically, emotionally, gastronomically. Once again we are in Italo-American South Philadelphia; once again everything from lovemaking to making coffee is done with brio, bravura, pepperoni, or some other hot Italian ingredient;...

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Julius Novick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Passione] is a jolly, cozy, sentimental, thoroughly Broadway comedy, and not a good one….

There are signs that Innaurato meant the confrontation between Aggie and Berto to become a significant comic confrontation between two contrasting ways of life, but nothing much comes of it. Italian-American life as represented in Passione is such a welter of lusty, gusty, earthy, emotional, pasta-and-vino stereotypes that I'm surprised any Italian-American could have the face to write it. How, I wonder, did Innaurato manage to leave out an organ grinder and a monkey? On the other hand, Aggie and Sarah lack even a clear stereotype to sustain them; there is no consistent sense at all of where...

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