Clemenza And Tessio Are Dead
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 14, 2009
"Leave the gun; take the cannoli" This is one of the most famous lines from Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's epic, The Godfather. Even those who don't know the film well probably know of the iconic performances by Brando, Pacino, Duvall, etc., that defined a decade of film in the '70s and many will have heard that aforementioned line. But not many know the character who said it: Pete Clemenza. Gregg Greenberg's play, Clemenza and Tessio are Dead attempts to delve into the lives of Pete Clemenza and Sal Tessio, two soldiers for the Corleone crime family (and minor characters in the film), and takes a humorous look at Puzo's saga from their eyes.
Clemenza and Tessio Are Dead builds on the idea of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, following the events of a famed work of art through the action of fringe characters (Greenberg even pokes fun at this idea as Clemenza tells the story of Hamlet to Tessio, likening their plight to that of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern). Clemenza and Tessio are two loyal mafia soldiers who have been with Godfather Vito Corleone since the beginning. As they follow through the events of The Godfather, they struggle with the idea that they are being forgotten and disrespected by the young guns that will soon be taking over the family (Michael and Sonny). Most of the scenes take us away from the action of the book/movie (a few random scenes are emulated) and are rather discussed from a distance by these two friends, who must wrestle with staying loyal to their "family" or securing their future business by making dangerous alliances.
Frank Senger dazzles as Clemenza, mixing humor with the deadly edge of a mafia button man. He channels just enough of Puzo's Clemenza character while making it his own—and he manages to find a perfect mix of cartoonishness and reality. Troy Dane makes some enjoyable cameos, as a newspaper boy calling out headlines to provide exposition for the escalating mob war and doing a few fun impressions (including Luca Brasi and the Don himself). Dennis Wit provides a solid performance as Tessio but does not quite provide the toughness of a Mafioso to match Tessio's smarts. Greenberg's Tessio also seems to stray the furthest from Puzo's characterization, which makes him a difficult character to portray.
Clemenza and Tessio runs into problems only because it rides the coattails of such a definitive classic. It almost works best for the casual fan, because a "Godfather Fanatic" may find himself too attached to the iconic performances of the film. On the other hand, though there's a wealth of quotes and inside jokes for the true fans, while a lot of the references (and thus a good portion of the humor) would be lost on those not familiar with the series. That being said, Greenberg's show provides a detailed, funny portrait of two mid-level mafia guys struggling with the new ways and a fascinating peek into the minds of two characters for whom Puzo and Coppola only give us the tip of the iceberg. Clemenza and Tessio Are Dead may not scale the heights of its source material, but it gives us a lot more of America's favorite Mafiosos. And that is an offer we can't refuse.