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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While the New York cast features some new actors, director Gordon Edelstein draws excellent performances from all. Fortunately, Alysa Bresnahan as Luda, the Italian mama who is the heart and soul of this family drama, is still on board to reprise her fine performance; so are several of its standouts like Jordyn Dinatale as Luda's lesbian daughter Francesca and Shirine Babb as Celia, an African-American who works at a tile factory with her oldest daughter Tina.
Also intact and terrific: Eugene Lee's ingeniously semi-realistic scenery to fluidly move us around the various Park Slope, Brooklyn locations. . .Jane Greenwood's period defining costumes. . .Ben Stanton and Fitz Patton's very effective mood supporting lighting and sound design.
Unfortunately, Meghan Kennedy's semi-autobiographical script is still overstuffed with issues represented by less than fully realized characters. The episodic structure introduces all these characters and their issues. The actors do all they can to make us care about them. Unfortunately, the various interactions fail to coalesce into a satisfyingly original and fully nuanced portrait of this native Italian couple and their American-born daughters living in a world on the cusp of many social changes. Even Bresnahan's Luda, who's apparently based on the playwright's mother and the inspiration for the play, isn't given a really satisfying arc between her first and final vignette.
The Muscolinos certainly are stand-ins for all the issues just beginning to stir in 1960: the difficulties of bridging the gap between the Napoli born parents and the Brooklyn born children. . . domestic abuse. . . reliance on and loss of faith. . . sexual identity . . .female empowerment. But for all the social conformity ready to be rocked by civil rights, the Vietnam war and the women's liberation movement the conflicts simmering along with Luda Muscolino's spaghetti dinners never rise above stereotypical slices of immigrant lives caught up in the gradually evolving mores of old and new world traditions.
For 16-year-old Francesca Muscolino (Jordyn Dinatale) that means dealing with her love affair with Irish neighbor, Connie (Juliet Brett). For the rebellious and faith questioning 20-year-old Vita (Elise Kibler) it means being exiled to a convent after a violent confrontation with the tyrannical pater familias Nic (Michael Rispoli). (He actually broke her nose and she's there to heal not to become a nun as she, much to her devout mama's distress, lost her faith). As for the socially awkward 26-year-old Tina (Lili Kay), she has acquiesced to the fate of many old-world immigrant families' first borns, to work at a monotonous factory job in order to contribute to the family's income. But even that job is used to hint at social changes afoot by having Tina develop a culture crossing friendship with her African-American work partner Celia Jones (Baab).
If this sounds like a play that has enough going on for plenty of drama, it is. Tue problem, as David Rosenberg pointed out in his review of the Connecticut production, is that there's no real thread to forcefully connect all these small scenes. Consequently, Napoli, Brooklyn remains a diffuse, episodic work that lacks a clear, central line of development.
Alyssa Bresnahan's Luda, does hold the family and the play together, but she's burdened with several pleas to an onion to make her cry again, mostly over daughter Vita's renunciation of her faith. More importantly, the big arc that makes those great dinners Luda cooks turn into lonely affairs, also turns her into a device character. Her more nuanced, modern sensibility is achieved via a tacked-on speech about female empowerment that makes for a too abrupt and flat finale.
Unless you arrive at the Laura Pels just a minute before the play begins so that you'll be rushing past the lobby display, I'm not being a spoiler when I tell you that at one point the play picks up dramatic steam courtesy of a real event documented in that display: blown up images and news stories about the December 16, 1960 collision of two commercial planes above New York City. One plane crashed in Staten Island, the other in Brooklyn's Park Slope, killing 128 passengers as well as six people on the ground.
Even if you stopped to peruse that lobby display, the crash, as recreated by the design team, is going to come as a stunning surprise. And it does serve as an effective shortcut for all those episodes to take a more dynamic turn.
The dictatorial Nic's close call with death allows him to have an epiphany and Kennedy's version of the Brooklyn lives snuffed out by the disaster, brings Albert Duffy (Erik Lochtefeld), the Irish butcher who has a crush on Luda and Tina's African-American friend Celia to the Muscolinos' Christmas dinner table. The way Ben Stanton's surrounds the entire theater with Christmas lights ads an especially effective festive touch to that dinner.
Unfortunately despite the exciting way the literally explosive disaster is staged, as is that tension-filled also explosive Christmas dinner scene, the second act reverts back to stereotypical predictability.
Ultimately, the play's most affecting emotional moment is not Luda's final solo but the scene where the three sisters are once more on the bed they've shared for so long and face going their separate ways. There's a reason three sister plays tend to retain their power, no matter where, when and how often done. Perhaps if Vita, instead of just writing letters from the convent during the first act, were the play's narrator, she could have given Napoli,, Brooklyn that strong connecting thread it now lacks.
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Napoli, Brooklyn By Meghan Kennedy
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Cast (in order of appearance): Alyssa Bresnahan (Ludovica-Luda-Muscolino), Jordyn DiNatale (Francesca Muscolino), Lili Kay (Tina Muscolino),Elise Kibler (Vita Muscolino),Juliet Brett(Connie Duffy),Eric Lochtfeld (Albert duffy),Shrine Babb (Celia Jones), Michael Rispoli (Nic Muscolino)
Set Design: Eugene Lee
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Dialect Coach: Steephen Gabis
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Hair and Wigs: Tom Watson
Production Stage Manager: Cole Penenberger
Running Time: 2 hours including 1 15-minute intermission
Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater
From 6/09/17; opening 6/27/17; closing 8/27/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/23 press preview
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