After seeing the brilliant Going Dark at the Young Vic last year, I was all afire for a chance to do another play in which sitting in a REALLY dark room was part of the experience – in the case of Going Dark, the experience of going, and then being, blind. And Tutto bene, mamma? at the Print Room seemed to take it even further, as the play is performed in complete darkness for both actors and audience (I kind of think the actors had infrared goggles on, though, as they were walking around the set). What were we going to experience that required sitting in the dark? What would it mean to “share a world that is in complete darkness” with the actors? How were our heightened (other) senses going to be made use of? What would be learn?
In the case of this play, I think there is no doubt that “they accomplished so little with so much.” The sound design was incredible (nicely capturing the sounds of the city, people having two way conversations on a cell phone, the use of stoves, locking doors, jingling keys, etc.), and there was even an attempt at olfactory creation (I smelled lavender and onions: my husband smelled a burnt cake); but with nothing to see (and a lot being described), it was my ears and my nose that made this play completely unbelievable. First, the person playing the young boy simply sounded too old. I know a child’s voice is not really possible for someone with long vocal cords to do: but with the body, it’s easy to convince an audience that what you’re watching is a ten year old, not an adult. Instead, our actor (actress, I think) characterized a child by using a speech impediment, turning their “S”s into “Th”s. This was grating and made it seem to me like the child was meant to be somehow mentally impaired.
Then, well, there were the smells, or rather, lack of them. In a house as full of rot as this place would have been, you should have been able to really smell the reek and not just hear the flies buzzing around. The smell is mentioned, but nothing is there; and given that other items had nasal enhancement, the lack of engagement on this level for this critical area just … well, left a gap. Sure, the child was talking incessantly about what was going on and building the story in our heads (of the “scene” in front of us), but … um … it just wasn’t believable. And the child wasn’t believable, either: smart enough to understand hibernation but not smart enough to understand death?
At the end, it seemed like I’d sad through a much longer play than the 50 minutes it was advertised at. I’ve decided that 90% of the fault of this play is the script: the child is not written to be believable, and so he was not. And, really, while this may have been based on a “haunting real-life story,” it just didn’t make for a good play; in fact, there was only one moment (a conversation between the boy and his mother near the end of the play) where the darkness really, really worked. Otherwise, it’s only purpose was to let it get by without the budget for the special effects it would have needed to have worked if we could have seen what was happening in front of us, and to hide the horror of an adult playing a child very, very poorly.
(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, June 22nd, 2013. Based on the nearly empty house, I think word had already got out about what a stinker this play was. It continues through July 6th.)