There's no humor like Neapolitan humor. It is a thing unto itself -- as inventive as are the citizens of Naples. One has only to spend a few days in Naples to observe a city on the brink of total despair. And it is this vital need to cope -- when few if any material means exist for coping -- that has given rise to Neapolitan humor. According to an old Italian proberb: "It's true we're in a valley of tears, but here one cries so well." Centuries ago the Neapolitans, tired of crying, started to poke fun at themselves.
Most Italians jovially refer to the Neapolitans as a race apart. Neapolitans have a different and totally individualistic way of thinking. They have evolved an argot peppered with a high-blown fantasy found in no other Italian dialect. While living on the bed rck of Sophoclean tragedy, they talk and sing as if characters in a comedy by Plautus. Like a cat falling nine stories to the ground, the Neapolitan always lands on his feet.
In the earlier decades of our century Armando Curcio specialized in Neapolitan comedy. Yet he had many irons in the fire -- as journalist, caricaturist, humorist, novelist, editor, comedian, stage director, versifier of couplets, and oddly enough, author of encyclopedias!
One of his happiest successes (first produced at the Teatro Quirino in Rome in 1939 when fascist Italy was on the verge of war) was "A che servono questi quattrini?" This title could be loosely translated as "Money -- What's it Good For?" And the philosophy of Curcio's comedy is simply that money is good but credit is better.
To this end Curcio created an amiable philosopher named Parascandolo -- a penniless marquis who enjoys a coterie of sycophants. And chief among his disciples is Vicenzino, a bumbling artisan whose obtuse incredulity is a thing of pure delight.
These two characters are now being infused with the effervescent talents of the brothers Giuffre -- Carlo as Parascandolo, and Aldo as Vicenzino. Since both men have long since established themselves as leading actors on the Italian stage and screen, the Curcio comedy provides an apt vehicle owing to the equal weight given by the author to these two roles. In Rome the revival has been staged at the Teatro delle Arti.
To prove his philosophy that credit is better than cash, Parascandolo tricks Vicenzino into believing that he has become the heir of a substantial fortune left him by a cousin who went to America. Not only is Vicenzino's attitude totally changed in regard to himself, but the attitude of neighbors and businessmen in his quarter is totally changed toward him. Credit is generously offered without his asking. He begins to live like a king.
Yet underlying Parascandolo's casual philosophy is a concise manipulative intelligence, and at the close of the third act he has parlayed Vicenzino's nonexistent fortune into a new wardrobe for Vicenzino and himself; Vicenzino is first engaged to a gawky yet desirable girl and then becomes top manager of the pastry bakery owned by her bourgeois family. Credit becomes cash.
The brothers Giuffre have surrounded themselves with a brilliant cast, each as clever as the others. Nuccia Fumo adds many moments of hilarity as Vicenzino's despairing Aunt Carmela, a combination fishwife/grande dame. As Don Ferdinando, brother of Vicenzino's fiancee Rachelina, Bruno Sorrentino turns in a polished performance as a gambling roue.
Rachelina herself, whose penchant for pastry endangers the elasticity of her party dress, is given deft touches by Patrizia Amato. Clara Bindi is superbly unflappable as the elegant mother of Ferdinando and Rachelina, while Mariole Villevielle impersonates a maid whose gaucheries are without limits.
Sailing serenely above the chaos, of course, is the suavely benevolent Parascandolo, another master portrait in the gallery of roles created by Carlo Giuffre. And with him -- shoulder to shoulder -- is Aldo Giuffre as the irrepressible Vicenzino.
True, Naples may be a valley of tears, but here one laughs so well. . . .