World War II-era Italy comes to life in ACT’s ‘Napoli!’

War is hell for the soldiers called up to fight in “Napoli!” For those at home, it’s a pretty good way to turn a profit.

Eduardo De Filippo’s 1945 play — originally titled “Napoli Milionaria” and currently onstage at American Conservatory Theater in a 2005 translation by Linda Alper and Beatrice Basso — depicts an Italian family working the black market amid the devastation of World War II.

Revered in Italy but seldom produced in the U.S., the play strikes a balance between comedy and incisive drama — although the comedic side exerts a stronger pull in director Mark Rucker’s uneven revival.

Gennaro Jovine (a gruff Marco Barricelli), the family patriarch, is already a grizzled veteran when the play opens in Naples during the German occupation of 1942.

Laid off from his job as a tram conductor, he rails against the system that pits “the people vs. the professors” and dreams of a new egalitarian society.

His wife, Amalia (a radiant Seana McKenna), isn’t waiting around for that to happen. She’s doing a brisk trade in black-market goods — especially coffee — and keeping most of the loot hidden under their bed.

Act 2 opens 14 months later, after the Allies have landed in Italy. Gennaro, returned to service, has gone missing, but Amalia has prospered, and her business partner, Settebellizze (an unctuous Dion Mucciacito), is ready to expand their relationship into a romantic one.

The Jovine children have capitalized on the occupation, too. Amedeo (Nick Gabriel), is selling stolen tires, and Maria Rosaria (Blair Busbee) is dating an American soldier.

When Gennaro makes an unexpected return — amid preparations for a party honoring Settebellizze — the family’s war profiteering finally comes to light.

It’s a sharp, perceptive script, told succinctly in Alper and Basso’s translation, but Rucker’s uneven production is most effective in Act 1, as Gennaro stages his own death to elude the police (a sly Gregory Wallace as Ciappa.)

The momentum stalls in Act 2, although Gennaro’s initial return —suffering from something like PTSD, and met with callous indifference by the assembled guests — hits the mark. But Rucker’s staging runs dry when it needs to bring out the play’s darker shadings.

“Napoli!” comes close, though. Designs, especially Erik Flatmo’s beautiful alleyway set, evoke the 1940s in living color. The principal actors get fine support from the large cast, including Sharon Lockwood, Anthony Fusco and Gabriel Marin. In their performances, we see the hardships, as well as the humor, in wartime Naples.

REVIEW

Napoli!

Presented by the American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 9

Tickets: $20 to $120

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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