By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The playbill profile of B.J. Cleveland, star of Over the River and Through the Woods and self-proclaimed "God of Local Theater and All It Entails," offers a dedication: "For my grandparents, their parents and all the Milans--Je Mi Rodina!" Which is funny, because 1) the phrase translates into nothing (believe me, I checked BabelFish), and 2) Cleveland is about as Italian as Ragu meat sauce. Oddly enough, the same holds true for Theatre Arlington's entire production. You can just about smell the phoniness cooking when you walk into the theater, and...who is that singing? Oh, it's Louis Prima! Of course it is, because that's all those crazy Eye-talians listen to!
In truth, I hesitate to be so harsh toward a play whose actors are also award-winning volunteers, war veterans, doctors and AIDS advocates, but sweet Lord, what are they smoking in Arlington? Do they really think that everyone south of Switzerland plays the mandolin? But maybe it has nothing to do with Theatre Arlington. Maybe all the blame belongs to playwright Joe DiPietro. He's the one responsible for writing the ridiculous thing; poor Theatre Arlington merely follows the script. Might I suggest, though, that Mr. DiPietro consider writing phonetically? Though very much averse to stereotyping, I do know that one will rarely, if ever, come in contact with an Italian who pronounces every syllable of rick-cott-ah.
The acting is acceptable but teeters on the tightrope between melodrama and shameless juvenility, what with the actors' collective reliance on mugging for laughs. Carl Wells' portrayal of immigrant grandfather Frank is charming but marred by his accent sounding more Russian. Or Korean. Or that of some other totalitarian state. Cleveland, who takes on the starring roles of what seems to be 95 percent of Theatre Arlington's work, is also the artistic director. Now I don't know if auditions for the role of Nick were open, but if they weren't, it was a mistake. Cleveland hasn't yet mastered the art of subtlety and can't carry the load. Instead, the weight is shifted to the four grandparents (Wells, Shirley Orr, Burl Proctor and Dorothy Sanders), which reminds you how creepy it is to watch old people scheming. Like in Cocoon.
Fifteen minutes into the play, a train ran across the tracks located directly behind Theatre Arlington, blowing its whistle and shaking the set like thunder. Another came through during the second act, and I heard the blaring siren of a squad car zoom past after that. When the moment came onstage that a canned car horn sound was cued, I nearly jumped out of my skin. In the setting of a house in New Jersey, I suppose this fazes no one, but it makes you wonder how we'd all react if this were instead a production of, say, Hedda Gabler.
There's probably some dark, deep-rooted problem I have with all of this. The rest of the audience seemed to love it. A full house consisting mostly of septuagenarians, they all howled with delight every time Aida (played hoarsely by Orr) offered large amounts of food to her clearly very well-fed grandson. One woman seated in front of me not only laughed with unnecessary enthusiasm, she also repeated every punch line in a loud, high-pitched cackle. It was a courtesy, I'd imagine, so that I wouldn't miss any of the jokes. Not that any of them were worth a laugh.
Why are we all so fascinated with this theme? How we adore these stories about families coming from the "Old World" and pulling high jinks on their poor, unsuspecting, Americanized offspring! Sure, our heartstrings were all warm and gooey after My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but enough already. The bits and pieces are interchangeable. Instead of Italians you'll have Japanese. Instead of prosciutto you get sashimi. On one hand you have the reassurance that all families, East or West, are alike; and on the other you have the reassurance that it's getting really freaking old. After seeing Over the River and Through the Woods, I felt as though Joe DiPietro and director Dennis Maher had been trying to melt my Teflon-clad heart with nothing more than a magnifying glass and the noonday sun.