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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Albert Innaurato had a good year: 1977. He had audiences eating up his The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie (in which James Coco eats himself to death) downtown, and Gemini transferred to Broadway for what would become a four year run. A critic called him the Shaw of South Philadelphia.
Twenty year's after Arms and the Man, Shaw wrote Pygmalion. Twenty year's after Gemini, Innaurato's work is a dim blip on the radar screen. This is an intriguing enough reason for Second Stage Theatre to revive his most successful play as a part of its 20th Anniversary look-back, which is also a housewarming celebration for its interestingly-designed new digs in the Theater District.
Innaurato's plays have never received unanimous praise, even in their heyday. And it is entirely possible that, had I reviewed Gemini in 1977, I would have had no more of a positive reaction than I do now. But whereas Shaw's period pieces have an effervescence that makes them classics, this play seems to have lost any fizz it might have once had.
South Philadelphia is an area known for the characters who inhabit it, but not for its sophistication, nor its political correctness. It's unlikely that much has changed in the last twenty or so years. In Innaurato's brand of realism there is little focus on the ordinary. He's interested in the manic, the exaggerated, the bizarre, the absurd. He filters South Philadelphia the way John Waters approaches Baltimore, and then attempts to overlay the kind of wackiness one would associate with his Yale Drama classmate, Chris Durang, with whom he wrote three plays (just before, in fact, Gemini). But the lens Waters uses doesn't depend on hackneyed ethnic stereotypes. Durang is a satirist, Innaurato is not.
Early in the summer of 1973, Judith and Randy Hastings (Sarah Rafferty and Thomas Sadowski), brother and sister, make a surprise visit to South Philadelphia for the 21st birthday of their fellow Harvard student, Francis Geminiani (Brian Mysliwy). Judith and Randy are Main Line kids, slumming in South Philly. Francis is not happy to see them, for reasons we won't understand until later. His divorced blue collar father, Fran (Joseph Siravo), for much the same reasons, is.
The play is set in the backyard Fran's house shares with the Weinbergers: Bunny (Linda Hart) and her son, Herschel (Michael Kendrick). The Geminiani's are, as the name would suggest, spaghetti-eating Italians, but Bunny Weinberger's genes are booze-swilling Irish, not Jewish. Her husband, Sam, the Jew, is long gone. This ethnic mixmaster is completed by the Hastings who are, of course, WASPs. Lucille Pompi (Julie Boyd), an (Italian) widow from the neighborhood who functions as Fran's girlfriend, rounds out the cast.
Most of Innaurato's characters have some sort of food disorder. (This, as I define it, is a broader category than eating disorder, although we have several of those as well). People express themselves with food, eat too much of it (Herschel), don't eat enough of it (Lucille) or have a drink instead of it (Bunny). As a subject, this can be funny. But for those of us who don't share Innaurato's food fetish, it wears thin quickly.
The endemic histrionics at the Weinberger house compete for our attention. Speaking of attention, mother and son are starving for it. Bunny's preferred antidote is acting like a nineteen year old and, failing that, climbing the telephone pole to attempt suicide. Overweight, nerdy and probably a bit slow, Herschel's modus operandi is to fake various types of seizures.
Innaurato seemingly attempts to embellish this side show with a love triangle or two and, for 1977, a twist. Judith is chasing Francis; Francis, who is unathletic and listens to Maria Callas all day, has a thing for [don't be shocked] her brother. Oddly, Innaurato lets this play out on the surface; Francis never becomes more than a stereotyped stick figure. The apparent epiphany he experiences at play's end is a mystery.
I suppose a perfectly executed production of Gemini could be an idiosyncratic treat. This time, the keen direction that is a Mark Brokaw trademark is missing; he seems out of his element. The actors, almost without exception, appear to be unanchored. For Siravo and Hart, this produces a sense they are constantly trying too hard, whereas the three Harvard students (especially Mysliwy) do not seem to be trying very much at all. Young Michael Kendrick provides some better news: he nails Herschel. And Julie Boyd is excellent as the diminutive Lucille, the odd woman out in this wacky world.
My advice: skip the show and make your own bowl of spaghetti. Just remember not to burn the sauce or, as Fran tells us it's known in South Philadelphia, the gravy.
P. S. From the Editor: In case you feel you need a second opinion, I saw this revival with Les and can only add that I enjoyed reading his review more than the show. In fact, it almost made me swear off pasta (I mean, spaghetti)-- whether with sauce or with gravy. E.S.