If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
ROMANTIC COMEDY CONCLUDES LONG WHARF SEASON
New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre has concluded their rather uneven season on a warmly comic and romantic note. The play is John Patrick Shanley’s popular 1986 comedy, “Italian American Reconciliation”, and by curtain I didn’t see an unhappy face in the crowd. This was probably a wise selection for a season-ender.
Set in an Italian restaurant that apparently just hosted a wedding reception (more about that later), “Italian American Reconciliation” is narrated by Aldo, best friend to Huey, a lovelorn sad-sack who still hasn’t recovered from his divorce three years earlier. His ex, Janice, is a shrew of the highest order having even shot Huey’s beloved dog during the course of their miserable marriage. Huey is currently dating a nice waitress, Teresa, but in order to regain his manhood he feels he must win Janice back again one more time. In this fool’s mission, he enlists the aid of Aldo to set the groundwork for his seduction.
This early play by Shanley, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for the far more intense “Doubt”, displays the author’s talent for specific dialogue and quirky characters. He knows these Little Italy residents well enough not to reduce them to mere stereotypes and his affection for them is contagious despite their shortcomings. Scenes are allowed to take their time revealing character through a series of near-poetic arias.
The actors at Long Wharf, under the smooth direction of Eric Ting, could not be any better. John Procaccino, although a tad mature to be believable as Huey’s contemporary, is nonetheless a winning Aldo leading the audience through this comic folktale with gracious ease. Michael Crane is perfectly on target as the hopelessly romantic Huey whose passion and intensity ignites the role with boundless charisma. Lisa Birnbaum has the difficult task of living up to the legend of Janice before she even makes an appearance. She accomplishes this effortlessly, however, with every gesture, every choice exactly right for a complicated character who turns out to be more than the sum of her parts. Stephanie DiMaggio’s Teresa is a ball of fire desperately in love with Hugo and anxious to break-off the relationship at the same time – a contradiction that plays out uproariously in the comedy. Socorro Santiago, who plays Teresa’s world-weary Aunt May, makes a marvelous comic foil to all the neurotic lovebirds around her.
So much goes right in this production that it seems churlish to point out that Mr. Ting’s odd concept for the set (by Scott Bradley) proves a major distraction. The Italian restaurant works fine for some sequences but is totally out of place for others. Chief among these is the crucial moonlight wooing scene of Janice that, according to the script, takes place in a backyard underneath her bedroom window. At Long Wharf Ms. Birnbaum is perched atop a ladder set in the middle of the restaurant for what seems like an endless amount of time. I’m guessing Mr. Ting was contrasting the remains of a wedding party with love that is found and lost by these characters, but it still seems a conceptual mess to me.
A glaring misstep to be sure, but “Italian American Reconciliation” still works quite well. It fosters so much good will and is played out so splendidly by its cast; you’re not going to get many complaints from audiences eager to take this romantic gem to heart.
“Italian American Reconciliation” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through May 22. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4284 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.