Pirandellian Calisthenics


LUIGI PIRANDELLO'S Chee Chee, at the Loeb Ex tonight through Saturday, reminds us that brevity is sometimes the ghost of wit. Pirandello wrote this half-act play in 1920, a year before Six Characters in Search of an Author and two years before Henry IV. Chee Chee bears the same relationship to these two pillars of Italian drama as that of calisthenics to a crucial football game. We see Pirandello going through the motions of the themes central to his work--the illusion of reality, the reality of illusion, the multiplicity of character, the exploitation of roles in human interaction. But since he doesn't take the time or interest to develop these themes to their eventual subtlety and philosophical significance, the limbering up serves only to make us impatient for the real contest to begin.

Chee Chee proclaims himself at the outset a man disturbed almost to insanity by the protean nature of human personality:

Because you'll have to admit that we're never the same!...Just you try and remember how you are with this man and how you are with that one, if you're known to him this way or that way.

He can't even remember that his visitor Squatriglia owes him a favor. But this conception of fragmented personality does not grip Chee Chee as the great and terrible existential dilemma that it may seem. We should become suspicious of this when we realize that here he opens his soul to a stranger, one who is bewildered by his philosophical speculation.

Then Chee Chee turns the debt to a credit by asking an elaborate favor in return. Squatriglia is to extort from Chee Chee's lady friend, Nada, three I.O.U.s that Chee Chee had carelessly given her. Gradually, we see that Chee Chee's tormented introspection is but another role played before Squatriglia--and played for a calculated end.

In Pirandello's great plays, we are forced, with his characters, to view role-playing with compassion: "The harder the struggle for life and the more one's weakness is felt, the greater becomes the need for mutual deception." Pirandello had been aware of this long before Chee-Chee--he wrote these words in 1908. But in Chee-Chee's hands, deception is stripped of any moral value, and becomes a cold and petty instrument of gain.

Squatriglia might be an object of compassion. But he is significantly marred by the loss of his right eye, which is covered over with a bizarre skin graft. His blindness to the fact of role-playing is similarly a source of grotesque pity, certainly nothing with which we can identify. Chee-Chee calls him "indulgence personified," and deftly calculates Squatriglia's ineptitude at deception into his own plans to take in Nada.

The lack of any feeling behind all of these deceptions reflects the hollowness of Chee-Chee. In the Pirandellian wilderness of mirrors and puppets, emotion at least must be real. Artistically, it is emotion which must charge Pirandello's otherwise intellectualized prose with dramatic truth, as he well knew: the playwright needs to find the word which will be the action itself spoken, the living word that moves, the immediate expression, having the same nature as the act itself.

But in Chee-Chee, the word is bound, and denies the action. Only Nada feels what she says; and she is done in by a little knowledge. She sees Squatriglia's feeble but well-meant ploy, but not the larger deception that frames it. And Pirandello deprives us of the third and largest dramatic frame: the denouement that turns deception to the service of human compassion.

Only an inspired production could fire this play with enthusiasm of even the most abstract sort. Unfortunately, Philip Haas and his cast are not equal to the task; we remain uncertain from the staging that they have thought much about it. The most interesting issues, such as Squatriglia's position as an unwilling initiate to the world of role-playing, or Nada's succumbing to indulgence toward Squatriglia, get lost in the difficulties of moving forward with the dialogue.

Pasquale Tato looks the part of Chee-Chee, but doesn't act it. His nervous semblance of bravado saps any conviction in his portrayal of Chee-Chee as a manipulator of deceptions; nor does he transform his uncertainty into the kind of brooding self-doubt that might have provided an alternate, though shaky, interpretation of a Chee-Chee torn in the existential dilemma.

Larry Hanawalt plays Squatriglia's awkwardness to a painful extreme, alienating us completely from any empathy we might have felt for his situation at least, so that we are left with the impression of an insect squirming on the shaft of a pin. Thus we lose the small saving irony of a Squatriglia being carried for a time into a certain belief in his own rhetoric, before Nada calls his bluff.

Anne Singer is more at ease onstage, but she fails to exploit Nada's vigorous determination to beat the deception game. Singer's Nada is too polite and accomodating; she doesn't quite know what to make of the situation.

In the end, we share her polite confusion. Why did Pirandello bother with this slight and static play? At most, it deserves a quick reading before dinner, as a contrast to his mature work. We are shown deception, but are not rewarded with a shield for our weakness; only with a few thousand lire and unspecified sexual remuneration.