Napoli, Brooklyn

by David A. Rosenberg

What’s a “kitchen sink” drama without a kitchen sink? Meghan Kennedy’s overloaded Napoli, Brooklyn, having its world premiere at Long Wharf Theater before moving to Roundabout in New York, is filled but somehow empty, missing key elements. Its kitchen has a stove, but no sink.

Directed by Gordon Edelstein at freight-train pace, this is a melting pot affair with the two titular locations as bellwethers of a cultural clash. An Italian family -- Luda and Nic Muscolino from the old country, their three American-born daughters -- must learn to deal with an assimilated Irish butcher, his daughter and an African-American woman.

That playwright Kennedy has more than a domestic drama in mind may be gleaned from the program notes by the theater’s literary manager, Christine Scarfuto. “In the early 1960s,” she writes, “the nation was on the precipice of great social change -- the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the rejection of the social conformity of the 1950s would soon rock the country to its core.”

But the play, written TV-style with many short scenes, avoids those issues. Rather, it’s more akin to the kinds of slice-of-life plays that dotted the theatrical landscape in times past, with characters trying to make it in the new world as generations try to bridge gaps.

Of the Muscolino daughters, Francesca’s having a lesbian relationship with Irish neighbor, Connie. Tina is shy and illiterate but goodhearted, while rebellious Vita has been exiled to a convent after a serous altercation with her tyrannical pater familias who broke her nose.

For all that’s going on, there’s no actual thread. This is a diffuse, episodic work that lacks a clear, central line of development. All the audience has to hold onto, to engage with emotionally, is matriarch Luda Muscolino whose domain is the kitchen, a place where her closest companions are onions. (“In this kitchen, I pray, I cut, I cry, I cook.”) As played by the excellent Alyssa Bresnahan, Luda tries to hold the family -- and the play -- together. But she’s a device who, at the end, is unbelievably saddled with a tacked-on speech about how women have to be themselves. (“You are a woman and you are free.”)

At the end of the first act, an enormous plane crash devastates the neighborhood. (It actually happened, Dec. 16, 1960, when a United aircraft, having collided with a TWA flight, came down in Brooklyn.) The event seems to change lives: Tina’s African-American co-worker, now-homeless Celia, moves in with the Muscolinos and father Nic becomes almost pleasant, for a short bit.

But the changes are not integrated into the plot; they just happen. Despite a tension-filled, recriminatory dinner scene, the evening drifts from topic to topic: feminism, immigration, religion, prejudice, assimilation, etc.

The cast is uniformly good, even when motivations are cloudy. Jordyn DiNatale, Christina Pumariega and Carolyn Braver are distinct sisters, while Graham Winton, Ryann Shane and Shirine Babb are sympathetic as the butcher, his daughter and Tina’s co-worker. As Nic, the head-of-household, Jason Kolotouros struggles with an ill-defined character.

Eugene Lee’s set design is busy, encompassing kitchen (stove, no sink), bedroom, dining room, church, convent, factory, butcher shop. Jane Greenwood’s costumes make the most of a nondescript time period. As for the plane crash, thanks to lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Fitz Patton, it’s startling and awakening.

 


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