The Italian Actress is a rewarding, satirical, left-handed tribute to film studies programs, artistic ruthlessness and Italian neorealism. The play is from Duke professor Jody McAuliffe's adaptation of a yet unpublished Frank Lentricchia novel that conveys an academic milieu reminiscent of Don DeLillo's White Noise, in which a university-sponsored international festival devoted to "pornography and putrefaction" represents the ne plus ultra of cutting-edge aesthetic inquiry. Its guests of honor: Jack del Piero, a rapidly aging (and fictitious) porn film director whose works were subsequently embraced as avant-garde, and Claudia Cardinale, the real-life 1960s film legend who appeared in such works as The Leopard and 8 1/2.
No, it's not the likeliest of mutual admiration societies, but something clicks—sort of—and the two fall into an uneasy cohabitation at the same time Jack is being wooed out of artistic retirement by a couple of pathologically devoted fans. "Your soul is an abomination," Isotta purrs in dark approval when they're introduced, moments before her companion, Sigismondo, gazes at the filmmaker, a balding man with a permanently perplexed expression, and marvels, "You are even more sexual in person." Um, right.
The pair ultimately entices him to make one more film—with them, naturally, as the on-screen talent—which places Jack at the middle of a tug-of-war. Cardinale implores Jack to stop living in his past as a filmmaker and her past as a film star. But the history pulling him in the opposite direction stretches back to the 15th century.
We'd expect strong performances from a cast including Jay O'Berski, Lenore Field, Meredith Sause and Lucius Robinson under the direction of Dana Marks, and we're not disappointed here. But the main achievement of The Italian Actress is its examination of a film artist whose alienation springs from never being able to get himself on the right side of the screen. Ultimately, the projected surfaces prove a final barricade between what he wants and what he can live with. Beautiful images, forever distanced, ultimately prove cold comfort for a man who can't stop adding to his collection of ghosts in this cautionary tale for those artists exclusively interested in the extreme.