“When all else fails, make pasta.” That’s the simple philosophy of Giulia Melucci's memoir, “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.” Jacques Lamarre adapted it as a one-woman play. It’s now simmering on stage in an Asolo Rep production, directed by Rob Ruggiero with Antoinette LaVecchia in the role of Giulia. And, yes, she makes spaghetti.
A three-course meal, actually — which she serves up to seven tables of paying patrons close to the stage. (Critic’s note: Unless you plan to be one of these patrons, eat a nice meal before you come or it might drive you nuts.)
As the play unfolds, Giulia cooks her signature Italian dishes from scratch. Along the way, she dishes about a long line of Mr. Wrongs. These include: a skittish MTV producer; a Charles Nelson Reilly-esque cartoonist; a Foster's-chugging alcoholic/unpublished writer; and a blunt, pot-smoking, barely published, Scottish writer. (If that sound like a cross-section of the New York City creative scene, that’s no coincidence. The real-life Giulia works at Harper’s magazine.) Each bad boyfriend comes with a good recipe. Each anecdote is usually interrupted by a cell phone call from Giulia's old-school Italian-American mother.
The subject matter is always hilarious, though it could be heartbreaking. But that’d be another memoir and another play. Here, there’s no bitterness, no ugliness, just wry observation by a bubbly personality.
Ruggiero directs this lighter-than-air material with the rapid-fire timing of screwball comedy. John Coyne’s set (a geometric backdrop behind a working kitchen) focuses all the energy forward — on the actress and her connection with the audience. LaVecchia shines in Alejo Vietti’s designs (a practical dress in Act One, a hot red number in Act Two.)
The attention stays on the actress, as it should be. It’s a one-woman play, naturally. It’s all on her. LaVecchia carries it effortlessly. It’s a warm, engaging, authentic performance that boils down to good storytelling. Basically, we’re talking two-part comic monologue.
And LaVecchia delivers. She has the chops of a great stand-up comedian. She does character voices, from Valley Girl ditz, to a nasal Charles Nelson Reilly, to a Scottish freeloader’s burr. She breaks the fourth wall, riffs with various audience members and throws in bits of improv. (The lights flicker, then come back on. “Oh! It’s a miracle!”) Like any good comic, she gets the audience on her side. Of course, the actress has good ingredients with which to work. The play sparkles with saucy comic lines …
“I can count on my breasts the number of times I’ve missed a meal.”
“I’m drawn to repressed men the same way I’m drawn to a bubbling tray of lasagna. They’re like a Rorschach test that allows me to project whatever I want on them.”
“Whenever I start dating someone new I just can't hold back. No matter how often my girl friends warn me, 'Take it slow, let him win you over, don't give it away so quickly,' I just can't resist — I have to cook for him.”
And, let’s not forget. Along with killing the audience with this rapid-fire, “Sex and the City”-style innuendo, LaVecchia (in character as Giulia) is also preparing a complicated meal. When she “makes spaghetti,” she literally makes spaghetti — from scratch. A higher-level of difficulty. It’s like watching a high-wire act.
Cooking is an ephemeral art — and a nice juxtaposition to transitory relationships. You spend 90 minutes chopping up herbs, simmering sauce and kneading and slicing pasta; 45 minutes to enjoy the meal; then it’s over. Guilia’s bad boyfriends? She’s over them, too. The character keeps a hurt locker of mementos: a can of Foster's, an ice cream scoop, a Stevie Wonder CD, to name a few. At the end of the play, Giulia trashes them. Having served her guests a great meal, she’s now eager to leave for a rendezvous with a possible Mr. Right. This time, he’s cooking for her. Risotto, in fact.
She considers that a good sign.
IF YOU GO
“I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” runs through June 15, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for more information.