By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Mothers really take it in the aprons this week. In two new productions--the regional premiere of campy comedy Mambo Italiano at the Uptown Players and Quad C's poignant The Beauty Queen of Leenane--they remember Mama not with flowers but with bouquets of blame.
Mambo dances the tarantella on its two Italian matriarchs. This autobiographical ethnic comedy from Canadian writer Steve Galluccio asks what would happen if two traditional Italian mothers, both residents of Montreal's large immigrant community, found out their beloved sons were gay. And in love. With each other.
The answer is, the sauseech hits the fan. Maria Barbieri (Rebekah Durk) and husband Gino (Richard Zavaglia) wail and cry and gnash their teeth in noisy bouts of denial before deciding their writer-son Angelo (John de los Santos) is just going through a phase. Sicilian widow Lina Paventi (Cynthia Matthews) is sure her boy Nino (Butch Anderson) will go straight if he could just meet the right bella ragazza. And mamma mia, what a strega she digs up for him.
The plot in Mambo Italiano is as dull and predictable as a Pizza Hut pie. Such screaming and everyone crossing themselves like it's happy hour at the Vatican. But Galluccio has written some primo characters, and they add the necessary spice to this slice of life, particularly the women. Besides Mambo's moms, there's also Angelo's pill-gobbling, cuticle-chewing younger sister Anna (the adorable Elise Reynard, doing her first big comedy turn on a local stage) and Nino's old high school friend Pina Luneti (Maria-Khristy Millares, hair piled into layers of brunet rotini). These ladies don't just shoplift little bits of the show away from the men, they steal the whole shebang right out from under their shoes.
Part of the fun is the appearance of new faces in the cast. Millares is a Fran Drescher without the adenoidal screech. "I live on my own," Nino tells her character, love-hungry Pina, when they meet in a bar. "Why? Your parents dead?" she snaps. It takes a confident actress to strut onstage in a zebra-striped skintight jumpsuit. Brava, Miss Millares, for wearing that little mother with bitch-slappin' sass. (The costumes by Suzi Shankle and Andreas Hofmann deliver their own hilarious visual punch lines.)
Rebekah Durk as Maria has some of Shelley Winters' grumpy slouch, but she edits down her expressions to the tiny grimace, the impish twinkle and one gut-bustingly funny air kiss. Cynthia Matthews, chubby tootsies squeezed into tiny black pumps, could give Victoria Gotti a run as a scowling Sicilian madre trying to control her wayward son.
The other new chest, uh, face in this crowd is young Butch Anderson (what a name, marrone). In his first acting role ever, Anderson, a bulkier version of that sweet gardener on Desperate Housewives, can't quite carry off the emotional subtleties. But when he doffs his white undershirt, baring a physique tighter than La Cosa Nostra, all the good fellas in the audience (and the good ladies, too) let out audible sighs. Great acting isn't expected when great pecs will do.
Everybody gets physical with big gestures and overdone accents in Mambo Italiano. But they do overdo the overdoing at times. They're Canadians, these characters, as well as Italians, which means we get lines like "Whatta do you-a know aboot homo-seck-soo-olly?" The actors struggle a little with this stuff. Good thing they're so funny at it; otherwise it could get really annoying.
Directed by Andi Allen, one of the best around for knowing how to stage big comedies, Mambo Italiano had the opening-night audience at Uptown roaring and stomping with laughter. This gay-centric theater company, now in its fourth season, has found its niche. Gay guys love the place. There are plenty of the other kind of theater lover here, too, but the core audience is gay men in their 30s and 40s who appreciate seeing their lives reflected in material such as Love! Valour! Compassion! (staged at Uptown last summer), Mambo Italianoand the upcoming Southern Baptist Sissies (opening at the end of July).
Part of Uptown's mission is to produce plays about the gay experience that promote a message of tolerance and understanding. These things eventually happen in Mambo, at least for one set of parents. Angelo's father just can't stop being a proud papa, even if that means bragging that "No one is gayer than-na my son!"
There's a real sweetness to this silly comedy. But if you thought My Big Fat Greek Weddingwas over the top, Mambo's madness makes that melodrama look positively Pinter-esque.
Maureen Folan (played by Quad C student Julie Painter) is what used to be called a spinster. Unmarried and unwooed at 40, she occupies a run-down cottage in Galway with her cranky old mum, Mag (Dallas stage veteran Carolyn Wickwire). Day after rain-splattered day, Mag, rocking away by the peat fire in her droopy sweater and fuzzy slippers, barks out orders to her daughter for porridge with fewer lumps and tea with more sugar.
Maureen is bitter as gall about her lot in this Gaelic life. Her two sisters have married and moved away to avoid helping out with the care of their aged mother. Every day looks and sounds the same in the Folan household--empty nattering about the weather, the radio and a chicken-flavored health drink called Complan (about which Mag endlessly complains). Then one day a neighbor lad, Ray Dooley (Quad C student James-Michael Specht), drops by to invite Maureen to a party. There she is reacquainted with Ray's older brother Pato (Quad C student Carter Hudson), a lonely but sweet-natured man who works construction jobs in England. Pato spends the night with Maureen and gives her hope of a future together in America, an idea she clings to like a drowning swimmer thrown a life preserver.
But what's to become of craggy old Mag if Maureen leaves? The answer is the surprise in this dark scenario. As even Norman Bates knew, eventually we all become our mothers.
Quad C's productions are known for the high quality of the acting and the design values (the two-year theater studies program here is one of the best in the nation). Beauty Queen is a beaut in all respects. Directed by Shannon Kearns-Simmons, the cast makes nary a misstep in this tricky two-acter, and the actors handle the thick Irish brogues better than Uptown's actors do their Italo-Canadian accents.
The toughest role is Maureen, and Julie Painter is too young by half to be playing a middle-aged woman. But the actress is wise beyond her years when it comes to the depth of feeling required. The part asks for huge mood swings between anger and hope, flirtation and disappointment. Painter shows it all convincingly. She could afford to slow down her rapid-fire delivery, especially in Act 1. The audience is with her from the moment they see her soft moon face.
Both young men in the cast are handsome devils with strong acting chops. It's no wonder Maureen falls for Pato. As played by Hudson, he's old-school romantic, Robert Taylor in cheap pants and suspenders. Specht provides the comic relief as Ray Dooley, a goofball whose impatience with Mag leads to the plot's most heart-wrenching turn.
Wickwire is always a reliable workhorse of an actress. Here she screws her face into nasty whorls and zigzags as mama Mag. What a piece of work this character is, a villain in a housecoat. As a bad mother, this one makes Medea look like Donna Reed.