So Many Issues, So Little Time
By Geary Danihy
An all-suffering mother. An abusive, racist father. A sharp-tongued daughter who’s been told to get thee to a nunnery, another daughter, this one earnest but a bit slow, and the youngest, a feisty, Scout-like imp testing lesbian waters. Sounds like a casting call for a soap opera, but it’s the line-up playwright Meghan Kennedy gives us in her Napoli, Brooklyn, which is receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
Set in Brooklyn circa 1960, this kitchen drama is the woeful saga of the Muscolino family, with Dad and Mom first generation Italian immigrants and their three daughters assimilated Americans. As might be imagined, the Muscolino home is not a happy one, nor does it provide for riveting drama, for the characters are stereotypical, their plights ripped from the pages of a Days of Our Lives script, and the vehicle for change is a deus ex machina in the form of an airliner that crashes into a church (although you have to give credit to Eugene Lee, set designer, and Ben Stanton, lighting designer, for the pyrotechnical crash – it certainly woke up the country folk).
The primary problems with Napoli, directed by Gordon Edelstein, rest with the script, which just lays on the problems a bit too thick and does little to get us to really care about these characters. Thus, the cast is faced with bringing to life a reality that just doesn’t connect. As the all-suffering mother Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan gives us a woman who, dominated by her husband, expresses her love through cooking (and prays to an onion since God doesn’t seem to be answering her prayers). Her performance is admirable, even though she’s asked, in the play’s coda, to make decisions and say lines you just can’t conceive of a first-generation Italian mother doing – at this point there should have been a sign above the stage flashing MESSAGE! MESSAGE!
As the abusive, ever-so-macho Nic, the pater familias, Jason Kolotouros manages to be both macho and menacing, although he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the Italian accent he has to use to deliver his lines. Somewhat of a cardboard character in the first act, he comes to life for the extended dining scene in the second act, a scene in which the three daughters also seem to come into focus and have their say: Vita (Carolyn Braver) gets to confront her father, Tina (Christina Pumariega) finally finds her voice and her courage (a moment that elicited applause from the opening-night audience) and Francesca (Jordyn Dinatale) ignites the fire that forces Nic to finally back away, or back out.
Kennedy has also written in two minor characters who are more statements than they are flesh and blood people. There’s Albert Duffy (Graham Winton), an Irish butcher who loves Luda from afar, and Celia Jones (Shirine Webb), a black woman who works with Tina at a factory. What are the statements these two characters stand for? Well, there was tension between the Irish and Italian immigrants, a love-hate relationship, and tension between the Italian immigrants and African Americans. Yup. That’s all true, but the characters seem to be after-thoughts, additions meant to make the play more “meaningful.”
Finally, there’s Albert’s daughter, Connie (Ryann Shane), love interest for young Francesca. Hers is perhaps the most difficult role to bring to life, for this love interest, or puppy-love interest, has two adolescents playing in a lesbian sandbox, not sure of their actions or desires. This relationship, such as it is, is one of the weakest elements of the play, mainly because it becomes the focal point of the play’s conclusion in which Luda issues a Declaration of Freedom for women to be who they are, whatever that might entail. Remember, this is 1960. Luda prays to her Catholic God (or her catholic Onion), yet she ultimately embraces Connie’s relationship with Francesca (it’s never made clear exactly how Luda discerns this relationship) and basically tells Connie as she hands her money: “Go for it, girl!” One might ask, “Really?”
Watching Napoli, Brooklyn you can’t help but hear Kennedy saying to herself: “I want to deal with this and I want to deal with that and then I want to deal with…” It’s the intention to deal with so many issues that keeps this play from soaring. It not only wears its issues on its sleeve, it wears them as shackles on its wings.
Napoli, Brooklyn runs through March 12. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.