at Piper’s Alley

Sixteen years ago my sister Tina (no kidding) was the white-gowned centerpiece of a bacchanalia/bloodbath that resulted in heavy-duty fallout within my mostly Sicilian family; the reverberations from that occasion still make family get-togethers rather tense affairs. So I approached Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, at Piper’s Alley, with a lot of weird apprehension and with my Italian American nerve endings on red alert.

I knew I would be required to participate in this virtual-reality staging of an Italian wedding, and all the usual concerns were there. Would the ceremony be long? Would I be expected to pray, or at least look like I was praying? Would I have to kiss a lot of relatives (actors) I barely knew? Who would get disgracefully drunk at the reception, and would I get caught in the cross fire?

And in the back of my mind: Who would want to pay for this sort of grief?

These questions all turned out to be valid but in the end not worth the worry I wasted on them. Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding falls somewhere between the categories of “eerie” and “entertaining,” with a cast of 31 capable actors guiding the audience through both the high and low points of the nuptials. And as with the real thing, the fun doesn’t really begin until we hit the reception hall.

The crowd is ushered from prenuptial bar (“Vinnie Black’s Celebrity Lounge,” meant to be tacky but settling for makeshift) to the “Chapel of Love,” a convincing church with stained-glass windows and row upon row of oak pews. Missing are a floating crucifix (prompting me to wonder if there are rules about constructing fake Catholic churches) and a Virgin Mary for Tina to offer flowers to–a ritual no real Roman Catholic wedding would be without but thankfully is omitted here. While the ceremony itself is not exactly comic genius, relying on sight gags like an eight-months-pregnant bridesmaid and a doddering Uncle Luigi (Vince Pinto) who stops the ceremony to make his slow way up the nave toward the men’s room, it does introduce the bridal party and family, while the audience shifts about as uncomfortably as if it were really in church. Tony Nunzio (Mark Nassar, who has Italian eye-rolling impatience down to a science) and Tina Vitale (Rose Marie Dalesandro, making a brash, competent debut) are married with merciful speed; the only touch of genuine comedy comes when Tony reads his vows to a Casio accompaniment of “Stairway to Heaven.” Leaving the chapel and going through the receiving line (where I did feel strangely obliged to give Tina a peck on the cheek) seemed to take as long as the ceremony itself.

In the large banquet hall the actors make up for the dry ceremony, ranging out among the tables and working the guests–chatting with them as though they were old friends, clueing them into important family intrigues, coaxing the shy out onto the dance floor. I was introduced to Tina’s old boyfriend Michael (Peter DeFaria), while my husband was enticed into a dance with Nunzio Sr.’s girlfriend Madeline (the delightful Lynda Foxman in a very small gold lame dress). “Michael just got out of rehab,” Aunt Rose (Susan McNulty) informed me, and he offered me a glazed, dopey smile.

I realized that if you pay, you might as well play, and after Aunt Rose left us alone I turned what I hoped was an accusing look on Michael and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” We embarked on an improv that was virtually worry-free on my part–there was no audience other than the two guests seated at our table, and DeFaria was skilled enough to keep the improv going without much help from me. Once it was played out he moved on to visit other tables, as all the other actors were doing, but even if one of them isn’t paying you court, there’s plenty to watch. Tina and Father Mark get drunk and contentious, Tina’s younger brother Joey (David Viggiano) very nearly comes out of the closet, a harmless food fight erupts (bread is the only ammunition), and Vinnie Black (the quirky Paul Stroili, a hoot as this “Cadillac of caterers”) delivers a lewd comic monologue in honor of the newlyweds. Toasts are made “to Sinatra and Sambuki,” and the guests are urged to join in the “Chicken Dance” and, strangely, “Havah Nagilah.” Donny Dolce & Fusion do a better job of playing a mix of 70s tunes than many real wedding bands I’ve heard, and dancing is always an option.

A very authentic air of joyous hysteria began to infect both actors and guests despite the indifferent dinner of pasta, salad, and bread. When the best man (Daniel Montana) asked my husband and me if we would like to “take a walk,” we followed without a qualm, Michael in tow. In a small curtained room off the banquet hall, the experience reached new heights of weirdness as I found myself willingly pretending to get high with a few members of the bridal party. I actually urged Michael not to partake, to remember his 28 days in rehab.

For the easily embarrassed, the faint of heart, and those without the least vestige of hamminess in their souls this sort of thing might be daunting, but never fear–the actors here are sensitive to the various humors of audience members and don’t insist on dragging the shy into the spotlight. And unlike a real wedding, you don’t have to worry about anything. If the relatives make fools of themselves and the bride gets too shrill, it’s all right to laugh out loud. If the father of the groom lets his abusive nature get out of hand with his current girlfriend, you can stare openly. There’s no need to be polite. Just sit back and nibble your tasteless cake while the Nunzios and the Vitales whip themselves up, until Tony admonishes them all, at the top of his lungs, to “cool the fuck out!”

It’s difficult to be objective about an experience like this. For me it was just like going home, only less dangerous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.