“Secondo” finds you watching a nice, chatty woman in her kitchen. Her husband is due home any minute, and she’s cooking dinner for their 10th wedding anniversary. She’s full of stories about how she got to this moment in her life and what it takes to keep a marriage strong.
You listen politely and excuse her when the phone rings or a picture frame tumbles from a shelf because there are worse places to be than in a well-kept kitchen while the aroma from a fancy meal-in-the-making wafts through the auditorium.
The woman is based on a real person, Giulia Melucci, who works in publishing in New York City and also loves to cook. In 2010, she wrote a book about her various romantic relationships, and how cooking helped her get through them and get over them. That book was adapted into a play in 2012. It premiered at TheaterWorks Hartford a decade ago, had a successful extended run and went on to have over a dozen productions at other theaters around the country.
As its title suggests, “Secondo” is a sequel. We revisit the scene of the cuisine but much has changed in Giulia’s private life. She is more settled. Her husband is the editor of a film magazine, which has added excitement to her life, though she has decided to skip joining him on his latest trip to the Cannes Film Festival. While he’s away, she’s heard from an old flame.
“Secondo” reunites original star Antoinette Lavecchia (seen locally last fall in “Ah, Wilderness!” at Hartford Stage), original playwright Jacques Lamarre (who has another food-based show up this month, “Italian Mom Loves You” at Seven Angels in Waterbury through Aug. 21) and original director Rob Ruggiero (who, in the decade since “... Spaghetti” has become TheaterWork’s producing artistic director).
You don’t need to have seen “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” or have read the book, to appreciate “Secondo,” but it helps. The ex-boyfriend who comes back into the picture had a chapter of the book devoted to him that makes him even quirkier and funnier than he’s presented here.
LaVecchia inhabits the role of Giulia with an ease and authority that hides the serious amount of acting she has to do here. She blends anecdotes of her old dating life with talk of her current married life while preparing an entree and a dessert. She often interrupts one story with another and is frequently distracted by phone calls and the needs of the recipes she’s working on. She must roll dough, crack eggs and scald milk. All this of course is very carefully timed and rehearsed, but the stove top really works and gets hot. If she spills or ruins something, the dramatic moment is lost. The performance is a balancing act, as fascinating to watch as if LaVecchia were spinning plates in a circus.
There have been changes in Giulia’s life, but due to COVID, there have also been changes in how shows with real food in them tend to be presented. Unlike in another Lamarre/Ruggiero collaboration at TheaterWorks — “Raging Skillet” in 2017 — the audience isn’t offered food samples and isn’t invited onstage after the show to check out the kitchen equipment.
“Secondo” works hard to achieve a sense of reality, but some of its funniest moments are its most abstract ones, like when it’s forced to admit that this is an artificial construct. Melucci treats the audience as if we are guests in her home who’ve been waiting for her to arrive so we can watch her prepare a meal. She thanks us for helping with the leg of lamb, as if a crowd of people had been messing around in her oven.
As for the drama, some of the monologues can get tedious. The whole show perks up whenever LaVecchia has someone or something to act against, as when she scans the audience for a reaction, and especially when she talks on the phone. The phone bits are reminiscent of another one-person show, “Fully Committed,” which TheaterWorks staged in 2019. In the way she responds to whoever’s on the other end of the phone, LaVecchia gives those disembodied, voiceless characters energy and purpose. In the non-phone monologues, she’s less successful, mocking the voice of her old flame (named Mitch) so that he seems unattractive and annoying rather than someone she’s still interested in hanging out with.
“Secondo” lasts 100 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission that seems more for Lavecchia’s benefit than the audience’s. The acts are short and watching Giulia speak and cook isn’t emotionally demanding at all. You leave the theater feeling as if you’ve been on the couch at someone’s house, catching up. There’s an art to all that, and TheaterWorks has mastered it, but it’s not as transformative or transcendent or deeply involving art in this case, and you may feel a little unsatisfied, especially since you didn’t get to lick the bowl the dessert was being mixed in.
“Secondo: The Sequel to ‘I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti’” runs through Aug. 28 at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $65. The Saturday matinee and Wednesday evening performances are “masks required” while all others are “masks encouraged.” A streaming version will be available on demand Aug. 21 through Sept. 4 for $20. twhartford.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.