A Glutton for Farce

If it does nothing else, La Nona should have a direct effect on snack sales at Main Street Theater. Roberto Cossa's play is so preoccupied with food and starvation that by intermission, the audience should be lining up for second-act provisions. Then again, by the play's close, no one in the theater may ever want to look at food again.

Most of all Steve Garfinkel, who cross-dresses as a centenarian harridan to play Nona, the absurdly voracious granny in this 1977 Argentinean farce nominally about the destitution and destruction of a single family by the insatiable appetite of its eldest member. Garfinkel plows through meat, pasta, bread, snacks, fruit and a host of condiments like a black-robed personification of a cloud of locusts. When La Nona concludes its run, Garfinkel may find himself wishing to audition for the lead in a new adaptation of The Hunger Artist.

Garfinkel's performance -- bearish, lurid, glowering, gobbling, caterwauling -- is frankly the highlight of La Nona, said to be in the style of the Argentinean neo grotesco. Grotesque the play certainly is; whether or not it is new, or particularly enlightening, is not so easily determined. The script, first produced in Buenos Aires at the height of the Argentinean dictatorship, has been interpreted as a sort of cartoon allegory about the bloody rule of the generals. La Nona, "the granny," relentlessly devours the sustenance of her family (i.e., the Argentinean people). The family members, instead of rebelling directly against her, or at least cooperating in trying to find a solution to their oppression, resort instead either to blaming one another or to desperate and futile subterfuge. Predictably, nothing works, and while her hapless family members tear each other apart, La Nona and her appetite survive and thrive.

Now it is certainly possible to read the play as a half-farcical, half-horrific political allegory, but that brief analysis is already more straightforward and coherent (and obvious) than any of the bare facts of the play. Why a dotty old lady? Why the family of a greengrocer and his wife, his spinster sister, his feckless brother-in-law, his trollop daughter? Why an arranged marriage to a greedy shopowner? I suppose one could find social analogues to all these comic types -- and I have a sneaking suspicion that the specific satiric targets were a lot more visible in Buenos Aires -- but why bother? La Nona seems far more sensibly read as what it appears to be: a very silly farce about a crazy old lady and her ridiculous family, who are driven by their absurd circumstances into an ever more preposterous desperation. If that in itself is a comic statement about contemporary political life, so be it.

Unfortunately, the statement is more cogent than the comedy. At length, La Nona turns into a belabored one-joke sketch, painfully like those Saturday Night Live moments when time seems to stop and the musical guest never arrives. La Nona eats, her family feeds her, La Nona eats, her family tries to get rid of her, La Nona eats, her family self-destructs, and if there is a moment of unpredictable denouement in all of this consumption and consternation, I missed it. Some moments are funnier than others: Garfinkel's falsetto demands for "more veeno," "more pickle relish," "more mayonnaise" have the ring of a family dinner from hell, and La Nona's ingenious response to her relatives' attempt to smoke her out even wins her some comic sympathy. But in the end, the point and the laughs diminish. Raul Moncada's English translation of Cossa's regionalist satire just doesn't translate well enough, and La Nona will follow her military models into well-deserved obscurity.

In addition to Garfinkel, Jef Johnson has viciously good moments as Chicho, the shiftless brother and tango composer, and Charles Harveson hams it up with gusto as the greedily marriageable Don Francisco. Charles Charpiot, as father Carmelo, vents patriarchal rage in all directions, and Melinda deKay (wife Maria) and Mimi Stebenne (Aunt Anyula) add dollops of familial pathos. Melody Green, as sultry daughter Marta, spirals almost silently into spiritual and physical degradation, while her family and the script barely notice. But by that time, among cast and playwright, sheÕs the only one gainfully employed.

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Michael King