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A CurtainUp Review
A Room Of My Own
By Elyse Sommer
No question that Charles Messina's 1970s childhood home — a studio apartment in Greenwich Village (after Stonewall but before AIDS. . post- Watergate and pre-Reagan. . . all authentically detailed by Brian Dudkiewicz scenery and Catherine Siracusa's costumes — made a room of one's own a wish even the most eager-to-please Santa was unable to fill. And his family was eccentric enough to encourage Messina, who also directs, to offer up yet another entry into the canon of dysfunctional family plays.
The Thompson Street address is indeed where Messina grew up, but he's changed the names of family members. And, since he's opted to take a meta-theatrical route to revisit his childhood, that includes the playwright's alter ego, Ralph Macchio, as the very much part of every scene narrator, Adult Carl Morelli.
Given that Adult Carl tag, there's obviously a Little Carl. Indeed there is. In fact, Little Carl (Nico Bustamante making his stage debut) and Uncle Jackie (Mario Cantone), the cast's only non-Morelli, pretty much steal the show which is more a sitcom with a constant barrage of F-bombs than the moving, introspective memory play it wants to be.
Cantone's Uncle Jackie, like his sister Dotty (Joli Tribuzio) and brother-in-law Peter (Johnny Tammaro) grew up in the West Village. If only the play overall was as lively, funny and touching as it is every time Cantone's Jackie leaves his rent-controlled apartment in the same building as the Morellis and pops into the over populated studio. If only Messina's dialogue were on a par with Jackie's conversations with 10-year-old, super curious and cute Little Carl — and the picture of fun moments despite poverty, were as vivid as a brief dance by Jackie and his teen-aged niece Jeannie (Kendra Jain).
Unfortunately the rest of the cast don't have young Mr. Bustamante's charm or Mr. Cantone's acting prowess and experience (the chief credentials of several is Tony and Tina's Wedding). Cantone manages to be both hilarious even as he lets us see a man who's been tragically unable to move forward to a more meaningful life. Tribuzio's Dotty, despite having mastered the bottom-of-the-heap ethnic speech patter, has found little variation of her character's shrill and angry persona. Tammaro's Peter also doesn't display much emotional range. Except for that delightful dance scene with her uncle, Kendra Jain's Jeannie doesn't have enough to do to make much of an impression. Neither is Ralph Macchio's meta-theatrical narrator as funny and moving as he should be.
Except for the scenes dominated by Uncle Jackie a lot of the comedy falls flat. Messina tries to ratchet up the painful effect of poverty on the parents' marriage and parenting by adding a long standing family feud about the way Peter's sister Jean (Liza Vann) was the beneficiary of the Morelli patriarch's real estate holdings. For a few minutes, a letter by Little Carl that results in a surprise visit from the long estranged sister as the family is about to celebrate the New Year provides some much needed snap, crackle and pop and some funny interchanges (for example, Cantone's comment when the mink clad Jean turns down an offered piece of salami because she's a vegetarian and doesn't believe in cruelty to animals: "How do you think that mink got on your back? Ya think he volunteered to get a red hot poker shoved up his ass?"). However, this plot development only leaves our narrator more confused about his mother and somewhat ambiguously claiming that longed for room all his own.