You’re a stage director. How would you recreate the scenes of your childhood in the setting of your family home? I, for one, would be tempted to gloss over bitter, petty clashes with my brother in favor of more meaningful drama, like our heroic (for kids) rescue of our dog in a midwinter’s fierce blizzard. But eventually the truth might seep through, the nuances and idiosyncrasies I don’t want you to know about…
I’d never been to an industry reading (or even heard the term, for that matter), and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve probably walked by the theater at 45 Bleecker in NoHo a hundred times not knowing it was there; it’s actually quite unmissable at a showtime. Walking into this hip, artsy spot, I was greeted by friendly hosts, disco music, and a disco ball shedding glittery light all over the 300-seat theater. If you get a chance to catch a show at this fantastic neighborhood theater, go!
I did know that I was seeing a preview of a play about a playwright’s attempt to tell the story of his childhood. To me, the memoir format–whether fiction or non–is one of the most poignant, meaningful, and relatable in any media. Oftentimes, it’s not so much the gravity of the story as its telling, though Bleecker Street Theater Company’s industry reading of A Room of My Own is both. Charles Messina’s new Broadway-bound comedy has his character Carl Morelli (Ralph Macchio) on stage with his kid self (John Barbieri) and family, writing his play stream-of-conscious style and trying to direct them through the 1979 holiday season in their one-room, Greenwich Village apartment.
The play opens with a narrator (Valerie Smaldone) verbally setting the scene, and Carl and young Carl enter the stage together. If you find cursing grating, you’ll be instantly desensitized by the mouth on this youngster (and soon you’ll learn where he got it from). Adult Carl begins telling the story of his struggling, Italian-American family’s life in the village as we meet his hard-bickering, but not hateful parents, Dotty and Peter (Gina Ferranti and Johnny Tammaro), blasé older sister Jeannie (Kendra Jain), and sassy Uncle Jackie (Mario Cantone). Mindful of his theatergoers, adult Carl attempts in vain to intervene when his parents–particularly his Ma–become overly vulgar, embarrassing, or scheming. Like an impending train wreck, the story unfolds in front of a riveted, disbelieving audience–including the exasperated adult Carl.
Granted, I can’t imagine my father telling a nun (Lynne Koplitz), “You can touch my salami any time you like!” Nor do I know how I’d react if my mother hatched a sapphic plot to get out of paying tuition to my Catholic school after both parents had gambled away the earmarked cash. Sometimes it seems the family’s only retort and argument-closer is the directive to shove some object or another into one’s very personal places.
Well beyond Carl’s grapple for control, Ma’s character is an entirely original portrayal of American motherhood. She’s hypocritical, conniving, brash, plaintive, and witty, and she never falters in her convictions–no matter how diabolical. Yet she somehow imparts the impression that she cares deeply about her family (at least as much as she cares about herself).
Cantone’s star power momentarily threatened to steal the spotlight; his hilariously shrill delivery was as perfect as ever. But his portrayal of the cussing, nostalgic, and most pensive adult character of the bunch seems to serve as a rudder for his sister Dotty’s borderline insanity. The unruliness of our characters, highlighted by an inspired act of self expression by the nun, is further grounded by a dramatic scene by Tammaro as Peter.
Part of the play’s brilliance lies in the way loose ends are tied back down… or simply let go of. How much of our lives are determined by our upbringing? How much of our past would we rewrite if we could?
While this was a singular presentation of A Room of My Own, look for future iterations on Broadway, national productions, and even a film version.
Bleecker Street Theater Company
Photo credit: Maryann Lopinto