Italian Ice and Fire
By Geary Danihy
Watching John Patrick Shanley’s “Italian American Reconciliation,” which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Eric Ting, is like being a fly on the wall of some Italian-American club, which was apparently Shanley’s intention, for we get to see what appears to be unscripted, emotional moments in the lives of five characters who represent, for better or worse, Italian types. From the fly’s point of view, the drama, such as it is, is less important than the movements and sounds made by these fascinating creatures.
The mood is set long before the “curtain” goes up, for as the audience enters to finds seats, Aldo Scalicki (John Procaccino) is sitting at one of the meeting hall tables, apparently a lingering guest from a recent wedding reception – the crepe hangs sadly, the lights are harsh as Aldo acknowledges various audience members while playing the table like a bongo. Behind him, Teresa (Stephanie DiMaggio) listlessly fingers an accordion, hard-as-nails Janice (Lisa Birnbaum) appears, shakes her head disapprovingly, and bustles off as Aunt May (Socorro Santiago) begins to bus tables.
The only missing character in this “family” the audience is asked to join is Huey Buonfigliano (Mike Crane), Janice’s ex-husband, who is soon called upon to make an appearance by Aldo, who wishes to tell Joey’s story to the audience and thus convey some wisdom about life, love and being Italian.
Joey, who’s taken to writing poetry and, May notes, currently dresses like the Count of Monte Cristo, wants Janice back so he can regain his sense of self, but to do so he must ditch Teresa. He enlists Aldo to help him accomplish these tasks, even though Joey’s girlfriends hate Aldo, perhaps because, Aldo claims in self-defense, he disdains marriage. Other believe it’s because he’s a Momma’s boy. As for plot – well, that’s about it, but plot is not very important here, for pleasure in Shanley’s play can be found in watching these characters interact, caught as they are in an ethnic web not of their own making.
Thus, the key moments in the evening are set pieces that allow the characters to gnaw a little on each other, for if you can’t gnaw on friends and family, whom can you gnaw on? The best of the gnawing is, first, Teresa pouring out her heart to Aunt May about wanting to break it off with Huey, only to have Huey arrive and announce it’s over between them, which elicits a plaintive “Don’t leave me!” from Teresa, followed by her vivisecting Joey. The heart has its own logic.
Then there’s an extended balcony scene in the second act that features Aldo trying to come to terms with Janice and her death wish for him, followed by Huey trying to work out why Janice first killed his dog then tried to kill him.
Since there’s no plot there’s no resolution, save for Aldo summing up the evening with the play’s “message,” followed by a curtain call that has the cast members dancing to “Mambo Italiano.”
Procaccino and Crane are enjoyable as the two Italian males trying to work out the mechanics and metaphysics of machismo. Perhaps a bit more physicality between the two might have been in order (You grow up with a guy, you punch him in the shoulder to show your affection). However, it’s the girls who shine, especially DiMaggio and Birnbaum, who have “Italian” down pat. With gestures that speak volumes and ice-pick put-downs, these two dominate the stage as they create the heaven and hell that, as Shanley would have it, is part and parcel of loving an Italian woman. As they attack with viperfish tongues, cake knife and zip gun, be thankful that you are safely ensconced in the audience.
“Italian American Reconciliation” runs through Sunday, May 22. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4284 or go to www.longwharf.org.