I should have liked The Italian Actress more than I did. It is a brand-new play adapted by Jody McAuliffe from Frank Lentricchia’s not-yet-published novel — both are Duke profs — produced by Durham’s smart and adventurous Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and stylishly staged at Manbites Dog Theater, as part of its Other Voices series. The Italian Actress tackles some difficult material, and is jammed with big ideas and packed with clever cultural references (two screens running clips from Fellini’s give us fair warning that this is art about making art). The acting ensemble has no weak links, and quite a few very excellent moments.

The Italian Actress runs 90 minutes, without intermission; but one wasn’t anxious for it to end (though Dana Marks’ direction could have been a bit brisker). And yet, and yet … I keep hearing that old line in my head: “Here’s a quarter — call somebody who cares.”

I came away caring not at all about the characters, only about the acting. Even Lenore Field in a sarong and backless heels and carrying a shotgun, in a glorious romp as the aged Claudia Cardinale, couldn’t turn that around. These aren’t people — they are mouthpieces for ideas, and the ideas are not quite fresh or compelling enough to make up for the characters’ lack of depth and clear motivation. If I am going to think about a snuff film, the making of which supplies the plot, I want to know why people are doing it — especially, as in this case, when the snuffee commissions the pornographer to make immortal art from his orgasmic death throes and subsequent deliquescence.

That we can think calmly on the topic of commissioned death while watching this play is due, I think, to the author’s reversal of expectations regarding snuff films. The perversity of associating sex with death remains, but here the filmmaker is approached by the subjects, rather than the filmmaker coercing or capturing the victim. The one who dies — who chooses to die — is a man, whereas in a standard snuff film, a woman or child is murdered. This bizarre escapade is not about money, but a heartless lust for Art, Fame and, perhaps, even Immortality.

But why do they do it? Why would a man (Lucius Robinson) culminate his four-year engagement and period of chastity with auto-erotic asphyxiation, the strangling carried out by his fiancée (Meredith Sause)? I’ve been thinking about it for three days, and still have no idea.

There is no driving passion apparent in the characters, which would be its own explanation; there’s no psychological unraveling that reveals the motivation for choosing death in order to possibly live on in others’ memories, or even the motivation for risking death for extreme, sterile, sexual pleasure.

We get a little more psychological background on the pornographer (Jay O’Berski, not quite channeling Marcello Mastroianni), in the form of his father’s ghost (amusingly played by Michael O’Foghludha), but it is insufficient to explain his malaise. Besides, he is trapped in his role of exemplifying the difficulty of seeing what is before one now, when images from the past continually assert themselves to overlay the present. The Italian Actress is all very philosophical and intellectual, but its emotionally distancing academic games make it difficult for the play to thrive on the stage. And we are still not at all enlightened as to why a man would prefer to make a snuff film than to make love to a woman.

The Italian Actress continues through Sept. 26th. See our theatre calendar for details.