Showtime’s “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” is the kind of classy work that might have been found regularly on PBS when it was still PBS. This is an achingly on-point adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ novella with a striking performance by Helen Mirren that ranks with her best. If ever someone were perfect for a role....
The setting is post-World War II Rome. After flopping as an aging Juliet on Broadway, 50ish actress Karen Stone is off to Italy on holiday with her wealthy husband (Brian Dennehy). When he dies of a heart attack en route, she decides to continue on and leases a swanky rooftop apartment with a panoramic view. She’s moneyed and lonely, ideal prey for the Contessa (Anne Bancroft), Rome’s opportunistic doyenne of gigolo-dom, who sets her up with a string of slicked-back Marcos and Lorenzos with their hands out.
Mrs. Stone nibbles these trophy escorts like Italian pastry and sends them on their way before meeting Paolo (Olivier Martinez), the prettiest, most charming, most seductive of the Contessa’s bright-eyed beauties. Although claiming to be from nobility, he’s so poor that he’s had to pawn his ruby cufflinks, and of course he’s in it for the lire too.
Meanwhile, a lewd, mysterious young man of the streets (Rodrigo Santoro) stalks Mrs. Stone and watches her with tortured eyes.
This is the better of two adaptations of Williams’ only novella. Vivien Leigh was Mrs. Stone and Warren Beatty was miscast as Paolo in a 1961 movie that never quite jelled despite Lotte Lenya’s memorable turn as the Contessa.
One big reason for the new production’s superiority is the emotional depth in Mirren’s Mrs. Stone. Her romance with Paolo is symbiotic, with many highs, and they are potent together, yet it’s obvious that it will end badly and in anguish.
Each is fragile, he from being humbled by poverty (although it’s unseen, you sense Rome’s postwar impoverishment in Paolo’s desperation), she because of feeling vulnerable as she ages and her beauty fades.
In fact, age threads through everything here, even though Mrs. Stone is still attractive enough to draw hubba-hubba leers from Italian soldiers on the street, and she and Paolo have hot sex, once in the front seat of an open convertible in the countryside. On another occasion, though, she admires the sleek body of her sleeping lover, then cries quietly after running a hand along the loose underside of her own arm. And every mirror becomes an enemy.
Although Mrs. Stone is a realist about Paolo and coolly takes many of his insults in stride, recognition registers in her eyes when she’s hurt. Mirren is wondrously subtle here, speaking eloquently through nuance in scene after scene tenderly directed by Robert Allan Ackerman from this Martin Sherman teleplay. It’s an elegant performance, rich in complexity and rewarding from the moment we meet Karen Stone as a defeated actress to the story’s conclusion, when she makes a dark choice at a crossroads of her life.
Martinez is a fine Paolo, and Bancroft is just a kick as that cruel, bewigged, haughty hag the Contessa, who subsists on what she can squeeze from rich widows seeking companionship.
When invited by Mrs. Stone to tea for their first meeting, the Contessa lifts her eyes to the heavens as if acknowledging a gift from above. It’s what you may do after a few minutes of this most worthy production.
‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’
When: Sunday, 8-10 p.m.
Production: Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, written by Martin Sherman, based on Tennessee Williams’ novella.
Helen Mirren...Karen Stone
Olivier Martinez...Paolo di Lio
Brian Dennehy...Tom Stone
Rodrigo Santoro...Young Man