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A CurtainUp Review

Magic Hands Freddy

I only give with strings. I'm a string instrument. Families stay together with strings
---Freddy, when his brother Cal asks him not to attach strings of obligation to the loan that has financed his first career and that he now wants to borrow back.
Michael Respolio & Ralph Macchio
Michael Respolio & Ralph Macchio
I'm glad I finally caught up with Arje Shaw's Magic Hands Freddy. As with his previous play The Gathering, which starred Theodore Bikel (and later Hal Linden), Shaw's new play has the benefit of a leading man, Michael Rispoli, whose genuineness transcends the title character's tilt towards stereotype. Think Marty, the memorable butcher of Paddy Chayevsky's TV drama and film (and soon to be musical). Only this working stiff is a masseur with hands that work magic on stiff necks and shoulders, and a heart that qualifies him as an Italian mensch with the soul of a poet.

While Magic Hands Freddy features a cast of four it is essentially a running, fourth-wall breaking monologue by Rispoli. His Freddy is the character who will remain etched in your mind. The brother he adores, the wife he calls "the nun" and various peripheral characters are integral to the play . But it's story, and the other actors are on stage to give that story a more full-bodied play flavor. This solo-plus format does circumvent the stasis common to so many one person plays. Rebecca Taylor has directed with a sure hand that avoids any awkwardness in the shifts between the central monologue and the interactive scenes. Ed Chemaly, who plays several roles, adds a very special something to the more active segments, especially as a hilarious undertaker who's also Freddy's client and friend.

The play is, as the title tag line indicates, about love and betrayal. At its center is the overwhelming love Freddy has for his younger brother.

Orphaned and raised in foster homes, Freddy, like so many such older brothers becomes his younger brother Cal's chief support system. His massage business pays for Cal's veterinary schooling. When Cal declares -- on the very day he collects his diploma -- that he doesn't want to be veterinarian (declaring "I don't even like animals"), Freddy's practicality prevails. To him work is not a calling that you're supposed to like but what you do. Even though he's disappointed when Cal does abandon his practice to become an art historian, big brother again backs him up with a loan and ends up taking enormous pride in his success.

Though the brothers eventually live in different worlds, the sibling bond remain strong. They travel to Italy together where they meet Freddy's future wife Maria (Antoinette LeVecchia is best in the flashbacks to the days when she was alive and sexy, before she had a child Freddy loves but she rejects).

Unfortunately while the "love" of the subtitle is established with genuine warmth and humor, the "betrayal" is another matter. For one thing, you can see what it's about long before Mr. Shaw spells it out. More disappointingly, the later scenes that shatter Freddy's illusions and turn his life into a suburban Greek tragedy seem out of tune with the laughter-lightened first act. That said, you'll have to look hard to find a more touching and likeable character than Mr. Shaw's magic-handed Everyman. As portrayed by Mr. Rispoli, his magic isn't limited to his hands.

Written by Arje Shaw
Directed by Rebecca Taylor
Cast: Michael Rispoli, Ralph Macchio, Antoinette LaVecchia, Ed Chemaly
Set & Lighting Design: Jason Sturm
Costume Design: Yvonne De Moravia
Running time: 2 hours, includes one 15 minute intermission.
The SoHo Playhouse 15 Vandam Street,(212) 239-6200.
Tuesday through Thursday at 8PM, Friday at 7:00PM and Saturday at 8:00PM. Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2:00PM and Saturday at 1:00PM.
Tickets, $45 for all performances; Sat 8pm and Sunday 1pm tickets, $50.
Open run beginning 2/05/04; opening, 2/19/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 18th performance

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