One of the first — and last — jokes that really lands in Dario Fo’s “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” isn’t a witticism — it’s Antonia (Mimi Leiber), an impecunious, frizzy-haired housewife who has taken to eating pet food because it’s cheaper than better ingredients. Antonia, we soon learn, is a joke of a cook, a thief, a pregnant woman, and a liar — and she begins the show with a satisfying thud.
At first, all we see is her bony ankles and golden flats as she kicks a plastic bag of groceries through her ajar apartment door. But then one foot gets tangled in the bag and it slips out from under her on the hardwood floor. She crashes to the ground, spraying aluminum cans across the stage, knocking open the door to reveal a mini-mountain of groceries that has just buried her — groceries that she stole from the market because she, along with several other women, was mad as hell at rising prices and decided not to take it anymore. After the dust settles and after Margherita (Susan Greenhill), Antonia’s friend and accomplice after the fact, saves the cans from rolling off the front of the stage, Antonia stands up with the bag still securely hooked to her leg. Though she does finally remove it, the bag of groceries is a ball and chain that is clasped to Antonia’s ankle for the duration of the performance.
Groceries ultimately trip everyone else up, too, throughout Fo’s silly if wildly inconsistent play at the Long Wharf Theatre, a tale that champions disobedience as Antonia plots to keep her stealing a secret from her dopey husband Giovanni (John Procaccino) and the police. Quicker than a pot of water can boil on Antonia’s stove — which, by the way, she lights with a welding torch in order to make birdseed and rabbit head soup — Antonia’s elaborate whopper grows so unwieldy that she and Margherita hide groceries under their dresses and pretend they’re pregnant, a male policeman takes a leafy vegetable hostage and then pretends he’s pregnant, Giovanni contemplates drinking fetal pickle juice but chooses to slurp down cat food instead, and multiple characters implicate the pope in the theft and its aftermath.
“We Won’t Pay!” exists in a kind of time warp that spans the second half of the 20th century. Antonia and Giovanni strongly recall Ralph and Alice Kramden in “The Honeymooners” with their banter, pro-union ideology and working class lifestyle. Antonia’s nose for mischief is reminiscent of Lucille Ball’s, but Procaccino’s Giovanni is less Desi Arnaz and more Alan-Alda-doing-Walter-Matthau: a tall, slight, stooped man with an inviting face who has a propensity to wag his index finger when lecturing his wife about rocking the boat and to flap his cheeks when he talks. (Procaccino was Alda’s understudy for the Broadway production of “Art.”) A timeline in the program tells us that women “self-reduced” supermarket prices in Italy in 1974 as a form of protest, but Antonia and Giovanni joke about Hillary Clinton and the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s. “We Won’t Pay!” is a free-floating farce, untethered by time, realism, logic or humor.
Throughout director Gordon Edelstein’s production, Antonia’s opening collapse remains the most elegant execution of slapstick because the gag is so unexpected and effortless. Most of the other physical stunts and verbal bon mots are not only inevitable, but the punch lines or payoffs come so slowly that the audience can play them all out in their heads ahead of time — a debilitating blow to any comedy. Or the gags just seem forced, as does the time Antonia ever so gently twists Giovanni’s arm, causing him to writhe awkwardly in overacted pain, bellyaching that she “displaced a vertebrate!” These directorial, script, and pacing problems throw the performance off kilter the way installing door closers would frustrate a door-slamming farce.
The play has an improvisational feel and tone that’s heavily influenced by commedia dell’arte, a physical style of theater in which lowly characters often band together in the face of authority. On one hand, that’s a high compliment to the actors who make what happens on stage unfold under the convincing illusion that it’s all being dreamed up and enacted in the moment. On the other hand, sometimes it feels as if the actors are actually trying to procrastinate performing whatever comes next in the script. As in an improvised skit, in “We Won’t Pay!” anything goes, whether it’s funny or not.
Who can blame the actors for seeming tentative? The script has more than its share of clunkers (like this sarcastic zinger from Giovanni, who doesn’t own a phone: “What would I do with a phonebook? Read up on who’s living in the neighborhood?”). Blame for such lines, however, cannot be correctly placed until Fo’s original Italian text and Ron Jenkin’s English translation are scrutinized side by side.
There are genuinely funny and well-played moments in the production, especially in the second act. Leiber and Greenhill create most of them, notably the scene in which they extemporaneously create a myth and accompanying hilarious rituals of the “Festival of the Patron Saint” to distract a policeman searching Antonia’s apartment for the stolen goods.
As lofty as his goals may be, Fo’s “We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay!” seems little more than confused cribbing off the brilliant comedic mind of Charlie Chaplin, who turned a shoe-eating hunger into a classic and poignant scene of American film comedy in “The Gold Rush.” The play’s lesson — the importance of solidarity against oppressive authority — is undercut by most of the play’s action. Solidarity may put real food instead of pet food on the table, but a life of dog-eat-dog deception and crime is a lot more exciting than that spent on the picket line, not to mention a lot more flavorful.
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