In A Touch of Spring, two decades collide in Rome

A Touch of Spring starts out as such a charming romantic comedy that it's a shame when it dissolves into a diffuse and wordy second act. Samuel Taylor's rarely performed 1968 play has one foot in the '50s (it's set in 1959) and another in the late '60s, that era of questioning and boundary-pushing, and after a brief, exhilarating fling with genuine iconoclasm, it falls back into conventionality with a conclusion that's a little wicked — at least for the time — but also deeply disappointing.

We first encounter Sandy and Diana Claiborne in the royal suite of an expensive hotel in Rome — all gold cherubs, drapes and white wall moldings. He's a business tycoon, she's high society, and they're behaving like the typical ugly Americans abroad, rightfully infuriated by Italian graft, corruption and inefficiency — but also arrogantly indifferent to Italian culture. They're brusque with the waiter, Sandy's annoyed by the espresso-sized coffee cups, and as a joyful pealing begins outside, Diana exclaims, "Can't anyone turn off those church bells?" The two are in town to collect the corpse of Sandy's father, who died in a car accident, and then hurry back home as soon as possible. But no sooner has impatient Diana huffed back to the States on her own than Alison, a young Englishwoman on a similar errand, arrives: Her mother died in the same car accident as Sandy's father, and Sandy's the only one who takes more than a second to figure out just what this means. Naturally, we're charmed by Alison, a familiar figure from all those '50s movies in which an enchanting young woman jolts a stodgy man out of his rut. Alison gets a little help in this task from the one role that truly resonates: Baldassare Pantaleone, or Baldo, a fast-talking young Italian operator who can fix balky appliances, blow through the bureaucracy, and reveal the sensual joys of Italy to both Sandy and Alison. Baldo is a kind of Cupid, a tempting devil (witness Alison fondling an apple as she attempts to seduce Sandy) and a version of the wily tricksters who track from Commedia del Arte through to eighteenth-century French farce. Fictive Americans and Englishpeople are always finding freedom in sunny Mediterranean climes, but Baldo adds something different: an impish, guilt-free pansexuality. He wants Sandy. He wants Alison — though not quite as much. And he'd be very happy to take them both at once.

But halfway through the action, Baldo leaves the stage and we're stuck with the lovers, as well as dialogue that's become so insipid that it's impossible to care very much how this affair turns out. There are also plot turns that make no sense at all (and I'm not talking about the farcical, all-stops-out film director scene, which is meant to be outrageous). At one point, Sandy unleashes a terrible destructive temper, but there's been no sign of this character defect earlier, and it never shows up again; on the contrary, he becomes a whipped dog whenever Diana's around. And the Diana who returns at the end of the play isn't the woman we met earlier. She's still powerful, but she's much, much kinder — as though author Taylor had decided he needed to dial down the nasty to make the ending more palatable. Too bad, because the nasty was interesting. And when Alison, a small-time actress who's never shown any particular longing for the big time, observes wistfully that it's Diana, not her, who's the true star, the statement comes completely out of left field. Sandy loves Alison because she's funny, fresh and full of life, not because he's looking for a star. Whatever that word means.

Brian Landis Folkins is very good at conveying Sandy's swings from bullying businessman to befuddled lover, but his performance needs more vitality. Bethany Lillis as Alison and Rachel Bouchard as Diana have their strengths, but both lack the timing that might make some of the saggier dialogue zing. Playing Baldo, Michael Bouchard runs off with the evening. He's filled with bravado but also waiflike, authoritative — Italy once ruled the world as America does now, Baldo observes, but "we gave it up. It was too much trouble" — and accommodating, full of fakery and grand gesture and still very appealingly human. This performance alone makes a A Touch of Spring worth your time.

 
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