"Italian American Reconciliation" explores complex relationships

Dec 19, 2012 2006

John Patrick Shanley is perhaps best remembered for his memorable screenplay for the film "Moonstruck" (with Cher and Nicholas Cage), as well as his 2005 play "Doubt." The latter garnered a Pulitzer Prize as well as Drama Desk and Tony awards. He subsequently directed the 2008 screen version of the play, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis.
Over a decade prior to these achievements, Shanley wrote "Italian American Reconciliation," a drama that bears the grim stamp of the playwright's dysfunctional relationship with his mother.
After "years of thinking, talking endlessly" and writing plays, Shanley realized that his mother was not very affectionate, and was, as he puts it, a "pill." The verdict was born of what the playwright calls a "byzantine, tortuous road." After these detours in self-understanding, he realized that things are, after all, "pretty simple."
The two male characters in "Italian American Reconciliation," Huey (Harry Lipstein) and Aldo (Adam Horvath) ponder endlessly what it means to be a man. They both also harbor more than "simple" ideas of how they feel about the women in their lives.
Huey has been divorced from Janice (Karen Pope) for three years, and has been seeing Teresa (Paulette Layton), a waitress. He discovers after a good deal of soul-searching that he really loves his ex, and wants to reunite, despite such minor events as Janice shooting his dog during their marriage -- and without remorse. Huey's epiphany about true love is finally unflappable, and in place whether or not Janice opts for reunion.
Teresa meanwhile has realized Huey is not for her, and intends to give him up, not without some misgivings. She feels Janice is like someone who "should live on a black mountain and drink out of a skull."
Aldo, like the playwright, is a bit of a mommy's boy whose driving ambition is to lose his "fear of women as a race." He fancies he might attempt this by pleading Huey's case to Janice, while having an undercover thing for her himself.
Aldo turns up at Janice's home to make the case for Huey from a spot on the ground below her balcony. The scene is reminiscent of one in which Cyrano de Bergerac in Rostand's play addresses Roxanne as a stand-in for another character to whom she is attracted.
The intriguing thing about Shanley's depiction of the mind-sets of his Little Italy characters is that their self-realizations are spun out of insights that border on Talmudic deliberation. They're a bit too preachy and overcomplicated for the likes of working class folk like Huey, Aldo, Janice and Teresa.
Director Sherry Asch has her performers doing their thing in broad acting strokes that sometimes go beyond what a more toned-down realism might deliver.
Marcia Simha's set design captured well the mood of Shanley's play, and Jose Helứ's sound design included the sound track from the magisterial Puccini aria, "Nessun Dorma." It has a more comfortable niche in a Pavarotti concert. In The Ridgefield Theater Barn's current production, it seems a bit overblown for Shanley's earthy characters.
"Italian American Reconciliation" runs through Dec. 8. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors and students, and may be purchased by calling 203-431-9850 or online at www.ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org.

by David Begelman

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