A quest to win back a rude ex
By Celia Wren
Thursday, February 7, 2013
The characters in John Patrick Shanley’s “Italian American Reconciliation” appreciate the minestrone at their local diner. Watching them relish their soup in the version of the play now at Northern Virginia’s 1st Stage, you can’t help hankering for more to savor in the theatrical variety.
No egregious flaws mar director Michael Chamberlin’s staging of this lightweight 1988 romantic comedy, but the able-enough performances never make the characters or conflicts particularly compelling. It’s unobjectionable fare, but nothing to Yelp about.
JD Madsen’s effective set design steeps us in the story’s milieu: New York’s Little Italy district. An iron fire escape slants down the side of a wall whose bricks are painted the colors of the Italian flag. A fire hydrant and No Parking sign rear up on a sidewalk, a smattering of trash litters the street, and, in a nice touch, strings of white lights -- sometimes seen in Little Italy -- slope over the audience seating area.
This neighborhood is home turf to Huey (Matt Dewberry), a softhearted eccentric, still reeling from his three-year-old divorce. When Huey resolves to reunite with his tempestuous ex-wife, Janice (Anne Nottage) -- despite the fact that the woman killed his dog -- he turns for help to his chatty best friend Aldo (Drew Kopas). The pals hatch a plan to win Janice over, much to the distress of Huey’s mild-mannered girlfriend, Teresa (Dani Stoller), who works at the diner serving that minestrone.
First seen looking distraught, dressed in a blue bathrobe, boxer shorts, a silk scarf and sneakers, frantically scribbling poetry in a notebook, Dewberry’s Huey is a colorful and mildly interesting figure. You can even sometimes empathize with him -- when he attempts to confront Teresa but has trouble meeting her eye, for instance. Stoller has less to work with -- her character is just a foil -- but the actress strives to fill out the role: A scene in which Teresa sits on the curb, crestfallen, blinking back tears and running her fingers distractedly over her knees, is rather moving.
Kopas’s Aldo is wry, amiable and animated, especially in several sequences that have him breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. (Costume designer LeVonne Lindsay gives Aldo a goofily dapper outfit, with suspenders holding up his gray-check, high-waisted pants.) Suzanne Richard, as Aunt May, a neighborhood personality, is enjoyably genial and withering, by turns. Less satisfying is Nottage’s portrait of Janice, whose rude, overbearing manner comes across as a little one-note: A few more hints of vulnerability, or depth, might give the production more emotional traction.
Shanley -- better known for his Pulitzer-winning drama “Doubt” and his Oscar-winning screenplay for the film “Moonstruck” -- allows his characters to reach some insights about the nature of life and love toward the end of the play. Neither these ostensible truths nor the flavors of the story are likely to stick with you long after the 1st Stage production’s curtain call.