Credit: Handout photo by Valentin Radev

Italy in the 1970s was, by all accounts, a wild place. The “Years of Lead” were marked by strikes and occupying demonstrations by factory workers; bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations by leftist and neo-fascist militants; and the Italian state’s “strategy of tension”—false flag operations justifying crackdowns on political activists. In the midst of this social turmoil, radical playwright Dario Fo must have said, “What those oppressed masses need is some Marxist… comedic theater.”

His 1974 play They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is classic Cold War–era agitprop, with all the subtlety and humor that conjures. Suffice to say, it doesn’t really translate to present-day U.S., and that’s not just a matter of language. Chalk it up to false consciousness if you wish, but you don’t really encounter Americans referring to themselves collectively as “the workers” in everyday conversation or spontaneously bursting into a chorus of “The Internationale.” Director Joe Martin sprinkles in a few references to Ferguson and Occupy Wall Street, but they don’t make Fo’s dialogue—really more a series of preachy monologues—any less stilted.

Yet none of the proselytizing is particularly crucial to the comedy, which fails on its own merits. They Don’t Pay is a simple tale of two women who shoplift some groceries and then hide them on their bodies by pretending to be pregnant, at once outwitting a highly credulous cop and their idiot husbands. What results is a low-level caper from America’s Dumbest Criminals stretched into a two-hour play.

They Don’t Pay is a production of Ambassador Theater, a small, young company that specializes in work by international playwrights and does what it can with the resources it has. Set design is basic—an apartment interior with a wobbly wardrobe that doesn’t always cooperate with the actors—except for one impressive addition, a Rivera-like mural hand-painted on a curtain by Julia Tasheva. The cast takes on multiple roles both on and off-stage: Hanna Bondarewska, starring as Antonia, is also the company’s founder, artistic director, and the show’s producer. None of the acting is particularly convincing, but I’d like to see any actor juggle clichés like “hook, line, and sinker,” “greased lightning,” “read him the riot act,” or “running dogs of the ruling class” and sound natural. (It probably sounds better in Italian.) One cast member who comes up with a novel way to tackle the relentless anachronisms is Peter Orvetti, taking on four roles, and channeling a 1970s Dan Aykroyd for all four of them.

Given that Fo has a talent for making Brecht look understated, it’s hard to imagine who the target audience is for this kind of stuff. It takes a certain degree of both militancy and fluency in lefty lingo to not find his dialogue totally alien, and a degree extra to find it funny. I don’t quite have it, and this is coming from a critic who gets teary-eyed for Reds and really does sing along to “The Internationale.” A large part of the problem is that Martin’s superficial transposition of Fo’s cultural references only makes them seem more foreign and dated. In Fo’s play, Antonia’s husband Giovanni is a good-hearted but dumb union man whose reverence for the law prevents him from taking direct action: Occupy the factory! Shut down the Amtrak! his wife implores. In the U.S. today, unions mostly don’t exist, there are hardly any factories left to occupy, and the only people shutting down Amtrak are Congressional Republicans.

At a basic level, the production can be taken as a tribute to Fo. Now 90, Fo is an Italian cultural icon, a Nobel Laureate and, at least according to one person (his biographer), the most performed contemporary playwright in the world, chiefly for his better-known play Accidental Death of an Anarchist. It says something about Italy today that it would embrace a playwright so iconoclastic as Fo. But as tributes go, perhaps the Nobel was enough.

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