Italian American Theater Company

at NAB Gallery

There’s something combustibly funny about two old men feuding as if to prove they’re still alive. A surefire staple of countless vaudeville routines, feisty curmudgeons fuel the hilarity in The Sunshine Boys, I’m Not Rappaport, and the recent Play Expo entry, Nick Patricca’s Gardinia’s ‘n’ Blum. But in Fred Gardaphe’s Vinegar and Oil the spat that erupts between two Italian immigrants isn’t funny for long. There’s bad blood between these two patriarch in-laws and it stems from no sitcom setup. Colliding here are irreconcilable visions of happiness.

It’s 1959 and Frank Benet (Bob Adams) and Mario Ranello (Michele Ovanni Filpi) are drinking and squabbling in the house Frank bought for his son and Mario’s daughter. With expansive and threatening gestures, cigar-smoking Frank berates Mario for still speaking Italian. No such backsliding for remade-in-America Frank. Originally from northern Italy (Mario hails from the boot), now a self-made pawnshop owner intent on killing forever all memories of early poverty, Frank despises Mario as a “peasant” and, worse, a Democrat and union sympathizer. Hey, the guy acts like he’s still in the old country!

Enveloped in a “Moustache Pete” suit that swallows everything but his dignity, Mario is easily Frank’s match in sheer ornery defiance. Proclaiming “I just want to be happy,” Mario brags of sending his kids through college. He’s not ashamed to work in a foundry, and, basta!, he thinks pawnbrokers are parasites. Retaliating, Frank boasts that he paid for Mario’s daughter’s wedding. Swearing in steamy (and pornographically insulting) Italian, the fathers rage over which child trapped the other’s into marriage and who made the most sacrifices. Maliciously, Frank taunts Mario that when he dies he’ll leave everything to the church. The implication–that Mario’s waiting to collect Frank’s legacy–enrages Mario. A table gets overturned and a gun waved around.

But by now the specter of death hangs in the air, and the smell of their mortality triggers a belated humanity. Finally finding a common ground, the old men share their different pictures of the life each would lead if suddenly rich: materialistic Frank, oddly, would retreat to a fishing cabin in Wisconsin, Mario would continue to work at the steel mill–this time as the boss. Vinegar and Oil ends abruptly and inconclusively, just like real life.

The conflict that sputters through Vinegar–to assimilate or not to assimilate–was a favorite issue in turn-of-the-century ethnic drama, especially the Italian and Yiddish theaters, and it still matters today: how much of your heritage can you throw over without losing your cultural identity?–and can any economic success compensate for loss of roots? Part of the Italian American Theater Company’s ongoing examination of Italian-American losses and gains, the dilemma in Vinegar is well worth exploring. But the play never really dramatizes it; it’s just discussed.

A lot of familiar territory gets trampled down during these 50 minutes (fortunately no more than that, because the air conditioning’s turned off during the heated quarrel). Though Gardaphe’s sheer detail makes Mario and Frank as pungent as pasta, the playwright’s well-intentioned and well-grounded squabble ultimately suffers from sheer dearth of story. Static with exposition, with little dramatically at stake, and too little give-and-take in this tug-of-war, the scene doesn’t build: Mario and Frank never argue toward any particular end. (If Mario wanted a loan or Frank’s son a divorce–or any premise to heat things up . . . ) Though he never patronizes his fascinating survivors, Gardaphe gives them far more to say than to do.

Adams and Filpi say it all well, however, thanks to director Frank Melcori’s well-honed character contrasts. Never melodramatic, Adams makes a scrappy, arrogant, and inevitably defensive Frank, while, hunched down as if ready for one more street fight, Filpi both shrinks and struts at the same time, a persuasive picture of comic indomitability. Backed up by Lionel Bottari’s realistic set design, Adams and Filpi bring conviction to an important but undramatic slice of life.