nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 4, 2007
This one's a toughie: on a bill of four short original plays (in Series A of Summer Shorts), three are shockingly inept while one is a sterling masterpiece of the genre. What's a reviewer to say? Warren Leight's wise and insightful Amici, Ascoltate deserves a huge audience, but having to sit through Michael Domitrovich's Real World Experience, Leslie Lyles's Rain, Heavy at Times, and Eduardo Machado's Afternoon Tea to enjoy it is a major chore.
Amici, Ascoltate, directed here by Evan Yionoulis, is a compact, taut, compelling, and incisive piece about three generations of Americans at war. These particular Americans are members of one family, descendents of an Italian immigrant who fled his country during its first 20th century bid for empire:
My grandfather, Guiseppe, in an olive grove hidden by his father. The young men, or boys, of the village are being forcibly constricted. It's 1912 and a few months earlier Italy had gone to war, against the Turks, in Libya. Now the Libyans were known to hate the Turks, and it was understood they would greet the Italian Navy as liberators. it was going to be "una passegiatta": a military stroll. Mission Accomplished. And then, Libyan rebels joined forces with the Turks, they encircled and decimated the ill-prepared Italian forces....Twenty thousand Italian soldiers and sailors were initially sent to war, suddenly 80,000 more were needed. My grandfather Guiseppe, hid in the olive grove until nightfall, then made his way to the sea and L'America.
Alas, nothing changes: All three of Guiseppe's sons are sent to fight in World War II; Tony, the play's narrator, narrowly misses going to Vietnam (though one of his cousins is not so fortunate); and now Tony's own son Joey, who joined ROTC to help him pay for college, is about to be shipped to Iraq.
With astonishing economy, Leight encapsulates the way that war diminishes our humanity, regardless of its so-called purpose; this warm, richly-drawn family drama, which features characters as vivid and real as the ones the playwright etched for us in his earlier Side Man, feels almost like a rebuttal to Stephen Lang's hero-worshipping Beyond Glory. Tony Campisi (as Tony), Rozie Bachi (as his mother and grandmother), and Derek Lucci (as his father and his two uncles) do expert work bringing this family to life in a play and production that deserves a long life.
It certainly deserves to be in better company. As already noted, the other three items on the bill with Amici, Ascoltate are of fairly poor quality. Real World Experience is a trite satire of indie theater and reality TV in which an out-of-work actor is wooed by a desperate playwright to appear in a reading of his newest piece (whose enormous length is indicated by the couple-inch-thick manuscript on the bar before him). A twist midway through the piece only makes the exercise feel more pointless. Rain, Heavy at Times is a Grey Gardens/Golden Girls knock-off about a middle-aged woman and her elderly aunt who may or may not have Alzheimer's; the sight of the old lady wearing a brassiere from Victoria's Secret over her own blouse gives an indication of the level of humor here. And Afternoon Tea, about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie's second chance for true love, is simply a snooze, despite the music written (and accompanied live) by Skip Kennon. Director Billy Hopkins has oddly chosen to stage this piece with minimal movement, rendering it lifeless and static. (His direction of Rain is similarly stifling; this, along with the inability of Judith Roberts as the aunt to remember her lines coupled with Stephanie Cannon's unlikeably mannered turn as the niece, defeated any chance for Lyles's jokes to land.)
The producers of Summer Shorts, John McCormack, J.J. Kandel, and The Open Book, have unearthed a gem in Leight's smart, sincere play. But I caution theatregoers who wish to see it that they're in for some rough going.