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Raven Theatre

The middle classes, of course, just don’t know how to talk.

They don’t know how to live either, or so I’ve heard. But we’re thinking about the playwright and his problems now, and from that perspective, the talking is the big snag. Think of your own life–if you can bear to, you disgusting bourgeois lump. When you’re really depressed (as if the middle classes actually feel emotions) do you say, “This is the sickness of a stupid son of a stupid father”? Or “I used to be a young man. Now I can’t taste my food”? Or “I am my castle of thorns”?

Of course not. And so the playwright has to look elsewhere for somebody to write about. If you’re Shakespeare, you can write about ranting royalty or Arcadian swains piping on oat straws, or whatever. If you’re David Mamet, you’ve got fucking lowlifes, fucking thieves, and fucking hustlers. And if you’re John Patrick Shanley, there’s Little Italy.

Shanley can be good on Little Italy. His Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck, for instance, packed in plenty of intensity and color–and great language–without falling any further into contempt for its characters than most movies do. The world he evoked may not have been real, but it mostly made sense on its own terms, and there was a lot of pleasure to be had in learning its rules as the film went on.

Italian American Reconciliation, the latest in Shanley’s series of four quasi-autobiographical Little Italy plays, is a sort of Moonstruck II. Huey Maximilian Bonfigliano can’t taste his food. His divorce three years ago has him so distraught that he dresses up in a pirate shirt with gold piping and composes loathsome poetry all day. He calls on the stupid son of a stupid father, his friend Aldo Scalicki, for help. The plan is this: Huey is going to dump his current girlfriend, a waitress at a restaurant that seems to serve nothing but minestrone. Aldo, meanwhile, is to soften up the ex-wife, the castle of thorns, so that Huey can step in and patch things up.

“This woman shot your dog with a zip gun, and you want her back?” asks Aldo. These are passionate people. Also funny ones. The script bristles with jokes, bombast, and nifty turns of phrase, and Raven Theatre’s production, directed by the company’s artistic director, Michael Menendian, gets them across with verve. But is there a world here? I’m not so sure.

Shanley smears around jokes, aphorisms, and highfalutin linguistic gambits; the actors have to make some kind of sense of it while maintaining full-bore Noo Yawk accents. And Shanley gives nobody a break. The proportions of the play are weird. There’s a lot of narration, a lot of exposition, but almost no plot. We see Huey and Aldo and Janice in a few selected moments of crisis, and we’re supposed to extrapolate from that some sense of their worth as people. There aren’t scenes that build character indirectly; it’s all in your face and cranked up. It’s not that this is a bad play. It’s more like an impossible one.

Aldo’s the real challenge. He’s a wild, brilliant talker and dumb as a post about people. And the script leaves the actor to make sense of the character pretty much on his own. Lenny Grossman’s not a bad Aldo: he gets the jokes across, he feeds the rest of the cast well, and he keeps things lively. But at least the night I saw him, he seemed utterly rehearsed. He needs to sound like he’s improvising furiously, making up anything to say to keep his fears at bay.

Instead the accent was an obvious effort, and the lines sounded, well, like lines. Without an improvisatory feel, Aldo starts to seem too dumb: the Regular Guy, maybe, or Andrew Dice Clay’s younger, nicer brother, or at his worst a comic gangster out of Damon Runyon.

Jeff Still as Huey has an easier job. Huey isn’t a walking contradiction like Aldo; he’s just depressed and confused. Still does a good job of riding the stagy emotions Shanley has created for him. There’s some real emotion and poetry to the part, and he gets them out in view without having to sacrifice too much in the way of coherence and credibility.

Maybe it’s no surprise that JoAnn Montemurro as Janice fares the best. Shanley kept her lines relatively simple; she’s a woman who shoots down bullshit (sometimes literally–at one point she pulls her zip gun on Aldo) rather than trying to make it fly. She’s bitter, too angry to be pretty, but enormously attractive.

How good is the performance? This good: In the middle of the long balcony scene between Janice and Aldo, Janice announces that she is the way she is because her father didn’t love her. It’s an utterly bogus and out-of-character moment, and you find yourself angry at the playwright not just for insulting us with pap, but for degrading this character, for making her talk garbage.

Do Huey and Janice get back together? Well, they at least have their moment, and it’s a fine one. When they embrace, the scene works in a way that it couldn’t on-screen. You hear the sound of their footsteps, the hushed clasp of one body pulled hard against another. It’s immensely moving. It makes you remember that there’s more to a good play than language. We’re all middle-class around here, so we can talk; Shanley should learn to shut up once in a while.