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Salamander Starts Over

nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
August 14, 2012

Three boys, recent graduates of eighth grade, are planning to crash a high school party, and in the course of discussing who is to bring what (the greatest burden seeming to fall on Mando), they check the time: Mando is late to call his parents, having said he was going to sleep over at another kid's house.  Sure enough, as they're walking to said house, up pulls a car with its high beams trained on them: Mando's father, who has a thing or two to say to his son and his friends.  When Mando sneaks out the next night to go to the party, things take a turn for the dire, and next thing he knows he's off to an all boys' Catholic high school.

Mando, his friends, his father, and perhaps a dozen more characters are all essayed by Armando Merlo, a protean charmer who wrote Salamander Starts Over, an autobiographical story that begins as a very amusing look at a New Jersey adolescence, complete with bad choices and awkward moments, but becomes through its hourlong running time a much deeper and more affecting exploration of what it takes to grow up and how we move forward.  Merlo is ideally suited to the task of taking us through the story, not merely because he has lived it, but also because he is a very strong actor, effortlessly amusing and just as effective in serious moments.  He's one to watch.  No less impressive is the script he has written, which is immaculately structured.  Tales of how friendships evolve and fade away intermix beautifully with very funny family conversations and wrestling matches (Merlo was a member of his high school's NJ state championship wrestling squad for four years).

Clearly much credit is also due the play's director, Leigh Ann Pedra, who orchestrates the proceedings smoothly.  It's clear that she and Merlo have a strong collaboration going, and I hope they have many opportunities to bring work forward.  I'm not easily sold on one-person shows, particularly of the autobiographical variety; Salamander Starts Over happily proves the exception to the rule.