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Chris Rohmann reviews Alfred Uhry's new play at Hartford Stage

When I was living in England I had a recurring dream that I knew the Queen. In the dream I am not only her friend but her confidante, the only person who really understands her. I was reminded of this fantasy during "Edgardo Mine," the world-premiere production now playing at Hartford Stage in the fall of 2002. Here we are in 19th-century Rome, and who is telling us his troubles but His Holiness Pope Pius IX. Mind you, the guy is not looking for a wet shoulder, he's just telling us his story, and very entertainingly too. In Alfred Uhry's imagining of Pio Nono, as the Italians called him, is a natural raconteur, charming and acerbic.

The story he spins is a true one. In 1858 in Bologna, a six-year-old boy, Edgardo Mortara, was taken from his parents by the papal guard and put into the care of the Catholic Church. He had been secretly baptized by a family servant and was thus considered a Christian who could not, by law, remain in the home of infidels. The abduction caused a scandal. It was loudly taken up by the press as yet another example of the Church's arrogance, and became a potent issue for the Risorgimento, the nationalist movement seeking to reunify Italy and destroy the power of the Papal States.

Alfred Uhry is best known for "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," his witty, poignant examinations of middle-class Jewish life in mid-20th-century Atlanta. So "Edgardo" is quite a departure for him, set in another century, another country. But the microcosm of private lives embodying an era still applies. What could have been a grand historical panorama becomes a series of intimate episodes in the Mortaras' home and the Pope's private chambers.

In the Jewish ghetto of Bologna we meet Mariana and Momolo Mortara (Randy Graff and Michael Countryman) and their fifth child, Edgardo (Jesse Schwartz). We see him first as an infant so deathly ill that the young Catholic housekeeper, Nina (Spencer Kayden), performs an ad hoc baptism as an act of mercy, so that his little Jewish soul, as she believes, won't go straight to hell. When he recovers, the parents pronounce it a miracle, while Nina smiles knowingly in the corner.

Turns out the girl is not only a self-appointed angel of salvation, but a bit of a trollop who bestows her favors and her secrets indiscriminately on members of the papal guard. Eventually the news reaches the Pope's ears: A baptized Christian child is living in a Jewish home, in contravention of the laws of Italy and of God.

The Pope (Brian Murray) determines that for the sake of his soul, the boy must be brought-physically-into the bosom of the Church. The pontiff's closest advisor, Cardinal Antonelli (Robert LuPone), thinks it's a dumb and dangerous idea, on both humanitarian and political grounds. He warns, prophetically but in vain, that the repercussions could be disastrous, adding perhaps the final bit of fuel to the anticlerical nationalist flame.

The rest of the play, deftly and swiftly delivered by director Doug Hughes, is devoted largely to Edgardo's parents' (in the play, anyway, mostly the mother's) frantic attempts to reclaim their son. It's a sometimes heart-rending story, but one that rarely rends, partly because of a perhaps unavoidable but nonetheless unfortunate playwriting ploy-putting a child in a pivotal role-and partly because Uhry mostly wants to be entertaining. The dialogue is contemporary, no stilted Masterpiece Theatre locutions, and the script is pretty joky-especially but not exclusively in the Pope's mouth (his playfully self-satisfied manner is quite disarming, throwing off lines like "I'm the greatest tourist attraction in Rome").

This is all to the good, but the emphasis on lightness and levity, together with the play's brevity and its inward focus (there is only one moment when we glimpse the effect of l'affaire Mortara on the outside world), also make it seem a bit thin. I could have done with a longer play (this one is an intermissionless 90 minutes) that delved more into the debate the case raised in ecclesiastical and political circles. And I would have welcomed some longer scenes in which the interpersonal wrestling match could have been more deeply explored.

In the end, both Pope and parents are defeated. He loses his political hegemony, they lose their boy (Edgardo grew up to be a priest). And Neil Patel's monumental and intriguing setting suggests metaphors of the play's themes. Two massive flights of stairs set into a forbidding wall lead up to a deserted stadium of marble benches overlooking the action, and the stage floor is painted with a (mediocre) copy of part of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling-symbolizing, I suppose, empty power and two worlds turned upside down.

This microcosm of history is enacted by nine performers, some of whom double or triple their roles, and all them very good. Brian Murray as the Pope and Randy Graff as Mariana Mortara are the play's two magnetic poles. These two antagonists never met in real life, but here they orbit around one another. They interact not only in a couple of scenes in which the parents are briefly, tantalizingly reunited with their Christianized child, but they also engage in little thrust-and-parry dialogues "offstage," as it were, between the scenes, before launching into the next episode.

Murray is marvelous as Pio Nino, a potpourri of human contradictions-puckish, sly, irascible, amusing, unscrupulous, sweetly avuncular with Edgardo and smugly contemptuous with the Mortaras. Graff, an actress of great poise and a magnetic stage presence, gives Mariana the spunk and stature to stand toe to toe with the Vicar of Christ.

Young Jesse Schwartz plays little Edgardo, and he's quite impressive for his age, which must be close to the character's six years. He reads his lines believably and hits his marks onstage flawlessly if a bit mechanically. But he's got several major scenes at crucial places in the plot, and that's the problem. There's no way a kid his age can really carry the load the playwright puts on him.

Two of his scenes are the heartbreaking moments when his parents see that he's beyond their reach. At one of these points I overheard a woman in a neighboring seat whisper, "He's so cute!" It's a natural, unavoidable response, and it kills the play's emotional thrust. The play needs a sharp balance between pathos and bathos, but cute shouldn't enter into it.

Coming up next at Hartford Stage is the annual rendition of "A Christmas Carol." They should have saved the cute kids for then.

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