‘44’ to be Fratti’s third, at La MaMa | East Villager & Lower East Sider

‘44’ to be Fratti’s third, at La MaMa

Political animals: Julia Motyka and Dennis Ostermaier.  Photo by Peter Zielinski

Deceptively titled ‘O’Henry-esque puzzler’ is more than a numbers game

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  Mario Fratti, one of my favorite people on this earth, is one-third journalist, one-third drama critic and six or seven-thirds an astonishingly prolific playwright now in his eighth decade.

Or maybe we should say 44-thirds a playwright. His newest O’Henry-esque puzzler bears the title “Obama 44” — but that 44 is as deceptive as all else with this elegantly gray-bearded man of letters.

A few years ago Mario admitted to having at that point written 91 pieces for theater, all told — “one-third long, two-thirds short plays.” I asked him again last week. “Okay,” he said, “now it’s 93. And there’s another one on the way.”

A fitting turn of phrase in this case. As a journalist, Mario got to spend some time with a gentleman named Arthur Miller. As a playwright, Miller gave him a couple of pointers. One, it’s a good idea to start with the end, so that you know where you’re going. Two, “that a play is a pregnancy.”

Well, some while ago, Mario says, “I read in the newspapers where a young woman in the South, a volunteer for Obama, was murdered. That was the spark. And I keep this spark, ‘Obama 44,’ inside of me for six or seven months before I start to write it.”

The “44” in the title is a double whammy on its own, because Barack Obama is indeed this nation’s 44th occupant of the White House — but also because a gorgeous woman named Maja (actress Julia Motyka), at the heart of the play, has taken to bed a lover No. 44, to whom she pours out her ardent admiration of that same Barack Obama:

“I admire him so much. I love him. And I love America, for the first time. I’m proud of all Americans. We elected an African-American, showing the world that we are truly democratic. Forty-fourth! And you, my love, deserve that number too…You, you, only you…my adored 44.”

Forty-four is quite a lot of lovers for any one person, young or old, living or dead, wouldn’t you say, Mario?

The playwright looks off into space. And then in a very low, conspiratorial voice: “A few years ago a woman told me, ‘Mario, you are my No. 87.’ ”

Why, Mario! You’re more interesting than the people you write about.

The playwright — who lost his beloved wife, concert pianist Laura Dubman, 20 years ago, and is proud of their two grown children — looks off into another piece of space. Then, with a shrug, in an even lower voice: “I get along.” And then, a few seconds later: “Clinton. Remember Clinton? They say two million women want to sleep with Clinton.”

Back to the play:

“There has been a murder,” playwright Fratti says. “This Maja was teasing and joking, and it cost her her life. So now the first character that comes to mind is a detective — a good, honest detective.”

Ever meet such a one?

“No,” Mario says with a laugh. “In this play the detective admits that he too was won over by Obama. In 2008, this detective didn’t vote. Between Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, he didn’t see a choice. But now, after three years, he sees Obama as wise and serious and intelligent.

“So who could be the murderer? Somebody from the Tea Party? A right-winger? No, too easy.

“A judge who doesn’t like women? No, also too easy. The same with Maja’s millionaire brother, yet another reactionary. Or Mel, that lover No. 44, who absolutely adores her, and now finds his own life in danger, or even the [nameless] detective, who falls in love with the dead woman’s picture.”

Like Dana Andrews with the painting of exquisite Gene Tierney in “Laura?”

Once upon a time Mario Fratti did see that haunting 1944 Otto Preminger movie. But no, he hadn’t seen it now in many, many years — hadn’t remembered it when writing “Obama 44.”

Born into a good working-class family in l’Aquila, Italy, on July 5, 1927, Mario Fratti says he was a Marxist at age 14. “I wrote one ferocious novel, ‘Forbidden Diary,’ which was never published but now will be, by Piero Craus, in Naples, after 55 years!”

“When the novel was rejected, I turned to the theater. . .” He became both a playwright and a drama critic who goes to the theater six or seven times a week, or more, to this day, and doesn’t write a review if he doesn’t have anything good to say.

Mario arrived in New York in 1963, and liked it. As a reporter in Rome, he’d spent many days watching Federico Fellini at work on his autobiographical poetic masterpiece “8 ½.” The “work” consisting mostly of Fellini sitting and ruminating. Out of that experience came Fratti’s play “Six Passionate Women,” and out of that had come the hit Broadway musical “Nine.”

“Writing for the theater I became very concise.”  He’d stumbled over the manuscript of the youthful novel in an old suitcase in the museum and library that is his tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall area. “When I re-read it, it was almost unreadable. I was shocked. Who wrote this?  I could never write that way again.”

“Obama 44” is his third play at La MaMa. The first two were “Sister” and “Six Passionate Women.” Had he known Ellen?

“Of course. She told someone, ‘I don’t like Mario because he never calls me at 3 o’clock in the morning to ask for help.’ ”

Obama won Mario over bit by bit, as in the play. “Initially I was giving money to Lady Clinton, but then I changed. To me, the greed of the Republicans, and their racist prejudice, is incomprehensible.

“At a party I got talking with a Republican. He said, ‘I hate Bush.’  I thought: Aha! Finally! And then this Republican said,  ‘Because he gave us Obama.’ ”