If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

An Overstuffed “Napoli” Premieres at Long Wharf

That pasta pot on the stove seems to be on the verge of boiling over throughout most of “Napoli, Brooklyn”, the overheated new play by Meghan Kennedy currently having its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre. Ms. Kennedy may consider turning the heat down and applying some serious revisions to the play before its planned transfer to Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre next month.

Kennedy’s semi-autobiographical look at an Italian family making their way in 1960s Brooklyn is familiar territory that the author, unfortunately, does little to make fresh or original. The Muscolino family includes long-suffering matriarch Luda (a welcome Alyssa Bresnahan), her abusive husband, Nic (Jason Kolotouros) and their three daughters. At the play opens, middle daughter Tina (Carolyn Braver) has been sent to a convent as punishment for challenging her father’s discipline of younger sister, Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale). Meanwhile, oldest daughter Vita (Carolyn Braver, wonderful), has issues of self-loathing and guilt over not defending Francesca from her abusive dad.

“Issues” is the key word here. “Napoli, Brooklyn” falls into the category of “kitchen sink drama” with its heightened family conflicts, overstuffed plot and overt melodrama. A check-list of some of the issues and themes percolating throughout “Napoli” include domestic abuse, faith and family, the plight of the immigrant, racial tensions, economic hardships, sexual identity and traditional gender roles. In addition, a horrific special effect (which will not be revealed here) takes place at the end of the first act which sets into motion some rather odd personality shifts. Even with all this (and more) going on, “Napoli, Brooklyn” still remains a play that is often too much and ultimately not enough.

Under Gordon Edelstein’s able direction, the company of actors is laudable. It’s a particular pleasure to see Ms. Bresnahan, who did a string of memorable roles for Hartford Stage years ago, back in Connecticut. She’s terrific in the central role of Luda, a woman devoted to her children but in deep denial about the man she has married. It’s a credit to Bresnahan that even while delivering impossible lines to an onion (!) or giving a final curtain speech that flies in the face of her character’s reality, the actress is never less than convincing and sympathetic. In other roles, Braver has the best-written arc of the three sisters in a performance that charts a real journey of character. Both Graham Winton, as an Irish butcher who has eyes for Luda and Celia Jones, as Vita’s black friend from work, shine in otherwise underwritten parts. In the thankless role of Nic, Mr. Kolotouros mostly succeeds, but it’s never a character you truly understand (or want to) in the writing.

Scenic designer Eugene Lee’s busy, free-floating set complete with functional kitchen doesn’t conform easily from family home to butcher shop, warehouse or convent/church. This is a play that really demands a second story above the stage. A more stylistic approach may have actually worked better but then, I suppose, you wouldn’t have had that bubbling pot. Jane Greenwood’s costumes successfully reflect the early 1960s along with the immigrant experience and kudos to the Long Wharf design team that put together that awesome special effect. Overall, however, “Napoli, Brooklyn” needs a sharper focus from Kennedy on what it ultimately wants to be about.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” continues at Long Wharf in New Haven through March 12. For further information call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.



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