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Review: 'Zucco' Succeeds Despite Script

While not plot-driven, the Loeb Ex production of Roberto Zucco triumphs in staging and quality acting

By Benjamin J. Soskin, ON THEATRE

There is an appealing air of vitality in the Loeb Ex production of Roberto Zucco, which runs through next Saturday. It is a vitality borne of wisdom; watching the play, I got the sense that there was much experience in cast and crew. Many Harvard shows do not have the skill to pull off tricky stagecraft, and some of the shows that do cannot pull it off without showing the exertion behind the work. But Roberto Zucco succeeds on both points; it’s a wry and evocative effort.

It’s a mark of the strength of the team behind Roberto Zucco that they aren’t sunk by its script, which is one of those laughably pretentious philosophical treatises that stink up the Ex with fair regularity. Briton Martin Crimp’s affected translation (from Bernard-Marie Koltès’ French original) gives Roberto Zucco much of its campiness, but the play’s plot is no treat, either. Its title character (John Dewis) is a multiple murderer who enjoys making uninformative speeches about the place and nature of man. His story is played off of that of his love interest, an unnamed girl (Sara L. Bartel ’06), whose deflowering is bemoaned by her unpopular sister (Perry Fleisig-Greene ’05) and her overprotective brother (Alan D. Zackheim ’06).

The play isn’t driven by its plot and its dialogue; it’s driven by everything but its plot and its dialogue. Roberto and the girl spend most of the play apart, stumbling through dingy kitchens, picnics, train stations, phone booths, and brothels. And in the Ex production, the reason why the characters are in those locations is never as interesting as the locations themselves; indeed, the settings in this play often have more personality than the characters. Credit Austin S. Guest ’05 for his distinctive lighting design, full of sick greens, musty yellows and obscene reds. Credit George Collins, too, for his naturalistic sound palette of chirps and drips, and Harry G. Kimball ’04 for a multi-portioned set that makes efficient use of the Ex’s size. Even the music cues are well-crafted, featuring a slew of charming ’80s tunes supplemented by the narcotic anomie of Air and the camp appeal of Journey.

Most of the cast is skilled enough to skirt their characters’ inane dialogue and befuddling motivations to offer their audience enlightenment, or at least entertainment. Standouts include Bartel, who plays her bratty-teen role with enough passion to be believable, but with enough restraint to engage audience sympathy; Julia E. B. Morton ’07, who sold me on the inner humanity of her haughty aristocrat; and Smith A. Legba Nazaire, who plays a couple of taciturn authority figures with spontaneity and splendid physicality.

However, there is also a strain of bad acting which pops up in Roberto Zucco—a strain seemingly founded on the principle that a character’s emotional life is able to be shown entirely through changes in vocal volume. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a play or movie that is marred by this kind of catatonic work. I don’t think that there is any one reason why it’s such a pervasive problem. Sometimes it’s because the actor is untalented, sometimes it’s because of bad directing and sometimes it’s because the actor and director are trying to emphasize a theme or heighten the work’s atmosphere. But not many actors can build a compelling character out of such stuff; for every Tobey Maguire that succeeds, there are fifty Keanu Reeveses that fail.

Dewis and Zackheim wallow in this sort of bad acting during Roberto Zucco, but Dewis mostly succeeds in building a useful character out of it. He knows when to pause, when to be frank, and when to be droll—and by so demonstrating that he knows how his character’s mind worked, he makes his emotionlessness believable. Zackheim is less lucky; his deeply disturbed characterization shades into Keanu-like detachment even at his moments of greatest passion. Meanwhile, Fleisig-Green swings back and forth between this aggressive flatness and an equally aggressive style of scenery-chewing. At one point, while berating Bartel, she takes the gum out of Bartel’s mouth and sticks it in her own; it’s that kind of showboating role.

But even the play’s lesser performances are interesting enough to keep the audience halfway involved, anticipating the next interesting light cue or richly wan aside. Roberto Zucco isn’t a worthwhile play, but this shrewd and well-intentioned company has made an agreeable production out of it.

—Reviewer Benjamin J. Soskin can be reached at

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