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STAGE REVIEW : Those Letters to ‘Darlinghissima’

Times Theater Writer

A wise friend once remarked that you can’t rise above a marriage. The same is true of the marriage of actors and their material. When both are good, sparks fly.

Such is the case in the Mark Taper Literary Cabaret’s most recent Sunday offering at the Itchey Foot. “Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend” is the portrait of a woman and a relationship through a one-sided correspondence. Sound skimpy? Not when the writer is columnist Janet Flanner, whose Letters From Paris illuminated the New Yorker for 50 years.

The letters of the title, however, are not from the New Yorker. They are personal ones, written to her close friend of 28 years, Natalia Danesi Murray. They have the directness and abandon found in letters one expects to share only with the person to whom they are addressed. In Flanner’s case, they are also penned with elegance--of style, emotion, thought and spirit.

She was apparently incapable of a graceless phrase, even while describing her good friend Gypsy Rose Lee setting her Paris hotel on its ear--or herself being surprised in the tub by Papa Hemingway.

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But it’s not the name-dropping--of which there is only a savory amount, and dictated by events, not whim--that makes “Darlinghissima” (a Flannerian Italianization of darling) so special. It is the startling turn of phrase (“The iris in the garden are blue and my spirits will match. . . .”), the emotional intensities (“Yours and with all my tender thoughts and noctambulisms of the spirit. . . .”), the strong opinions (“Only a male is competent to deal with a bazooka; he made it up.”) and the pervasive humor (“We are still fairly certain that we don’t know where you are. We are not positive we don’t know, but inclined that way.”).

When prose is so vivid and rich, the stool-and-podium spareness of the Itchey Foot presentations is, if anything, an advantage. It sets off the language, allows the reader-actors--in this case Christina Pickles as Flanner and Danesi Murray as herself--to let it soar with what might be best described as passionate discretion.

These were women, Flanner and Danesi Murray, not given to flaunting much, let alone strong personal feelings that, in their day, were still largely unaccepted by (and unacceptable to) the outside world. Only in the last few minutes of the show are we given a casual and laconic account of the attraction Flanner felt for other women, “never,” she writes, “a male.”

But it is not all personal, or even focused on the personal. As adapted by Danesi Murray, there is a much larger amount of personalized political, literary and historical reflection in the letters--Flanner’s response to the deaths of Mussolini and Hitler, her coverage of the German atrocities (and numbing visits to the death camps), her reaction to the Nuremberg trials, to McCarthyism and its witch hunts.

“Like Italy,” she wrote, referring to Mussolini, “we have one man (McCarthy) who makes trouble and corrupts our mind--what we have of a mind. Yours was assassinated. I hope we soon have the same definite luck.”

But Flanner lost some hope for democracy and the world the day, as she put it, that “Ike lied” (over the U-2 incident). It was the first of many lies in high places and one wonders how dejected she would be today, 10 years after her death, with routine lies heaping up everywhere like rotting bodies. Democracy, she wrote, “is not a good lover any more: it is somewhat senile, very rich, and its mood is Saturday night, in America at least.”

So aside from being a private view, “Darlinghissima” is even more of a public one into the functioning mind of an upright, skilled and honorable American journalist, reeling from sorrow at Kennedy’s assassination, recollecting De Gaulle at his death (“a great French eccentric . . . a profound believer in a better, civilizing world”), scrutinizing Khrushchev with fear and loathing.

There is generous give and take in the combination of Pickles--a consummate actress, incandescent here--and Danesi Murray, a non-actress who reads tentatively yet with the musical lilt of her native Italian accent. The lucid, sunny intelligence of Pickles’ portrayal commands the main attention, but she shares it graciously with the more cautious, unassuming Danesi Murray, whose very presence in the room lends dignity to the event.

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Victoria Rue directed imperceptibly and the 90-minute exchange (a longer-than-usual running time for the Itchey Foot) is unpretentious, adult and nostalgic. Nostalgic for the clarity and vigor of Flanner’s thinking and expression and, through it, for the incredible power of the word that is being so recklessly and surely surrendered to the non-eloquence of fast images.

Once again, through the simplicity of its format, the Taper Cabaret touches a nerve.

See this if you love language.

Performances at 801 W. Temple St. run Sundays only. Curtain, 6 p.m.; doors open, 4 p.m. Ends Feb. 21. Tickets: $6; (213) 972-7231.

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