Nick Cristano has a problem, and I'm having trouble figuring out why. As the central character in Theatre Three's box office hit, Over the River and Through the Woods, Nick is put to a choice. Should he take the promotion his advertising company is offering him and move to Seattle? Or should he remain close to his ancestral home of Hoboken, New Jersey, and his two sets of doting Italian-American grandparents who raise his ire and his blood pressure during his weekly pilgrimage to his maternal grandparents' home for Sunday supper?
The entire light comedy, more charming than challenging, is framed around this decision, which should be a no-brainer. At least it was for Nick's mom and dad, who had the good sense to move to Florida, giving as their ostensible reason the weather, which Nonna Aida rightly doubts: "People don't move away from their families because of weather." Also absenting herself from their lives is Nick's sister, who lives in California and has told him: The greatest thing about America is that you can live here and "still be 2,000 miles away from your family."
OK, so he is their last lineal descendant still within shouting distance, but unless guilt skips a generation (which it certainly didn't in my Jewish family), it's hard to figure why Nick just doesn't simply, politely get the hell out of there. He can't seem to engage in conversation with a grandparent that doesn't cause him high anxiety. (His GPs just chalk it up to nervousness--a trait he's exhibited since he was a little bambino.) Sure the food's good--Italian veal, lasagna, cannoli, red wine--but Nick must eat, is forced to eat, whether hungry or not. Yes, it's endearing and humorous that his grandparents don't listen, always judge, are rock-solidly set in their ways, but it is suffocating poor "Nicolas," and he better get out if he is to have any semblance of self left by the play's end.
So what's to choose?
Well, that's where the magic of the piece comes in. From the play's opening, we are romanced by the charms of four elderly Italian-Americans who proceed to disarm us with their observations, their quirkiness, their plainspoken tenacity. Often speaking directly to the audience (a narrative device worn thin from overuse), they tell us their stories, sharing their immigrant experiences, their passions, the guiding principles that have shaped their long lives. "Tengo famiglia," shouts Frank Gianelli, played richly by Loring Stevenson, who loosely translates the phrase to mean: "I support the family...I have a reason for being alive." Gianelli, a carpenter, has built a life and a house for wife and head chef Aida (Ada Lynn), whose kitchen is her soul, which she bears at every meal. Lynn plays the archetypal matriarch, primordially fixated on the survival needs of her family, even after they are stuffed full of too many meatballs. Her Italian accent, however, is too Jewish; as a matter of fact, all the GPs (save Stevenson) have problems portraying their Italian ethnicity, which may be a problem presented by the play itself.
Playwright Joe DiPietro is a bona fide Italian-American, hailing from Teaneck, New Jersey, and branded by some critics as the "Italian Neil Simon." He is the playwright in residence at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, but he might just as well be the resident playwright at Theatre Three. In the theater's tiny downstairs space--Theatre Two--DiPietro's hilarious (non-ethnic) musical review I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change has been playing since the summer of 2000. If there is such a thing as a cash cow in a nonprofit theater (which I doubt), DiPietro is close to being one. His two works are genuine crowd-pleasers both here and in New York, where they were both off-Broadway hits. Over the River and Through the Woods is a semi-autobiographical accounting of DiPietro's own Italian grandparents, though the play's ethnicity feels more homogenized and less Italian in its orientation than it ought to be.
The characters certainly eat a lot of Italian food, and a smattering of Catholic artifacts dot the living room landscape, but the piece needs more Italian sayings and shtick, something that separates the Italian immigrant experience from its Jewish, Irish or even Hispanic counterparts. It doesn't help that the two grandmothers, although remarkably appealing characters, fail to capture the rhythm of Italian-American speak; neither does grandfather Nunzio, played by Hugh Feagin, who on occasion slips into something approaching a Southern drawl. Perhaps by offering up a more generic ethnicity, DiPietro intends to appeal to a broader audience, but when the idiosyncrasies of a culture are not mined for all their rich detail, too much is lost in the bargain. It's like what happened to the bagel for Jewish people after Einstein's got hold of it.
That said, generic ethnicity still serves the work as its players--fine actors all--bring enough truth, warmth and understanding to their performances to emotionally ensnare even the most hard-hearted. We recognize these folks as our own Gramps and Granny--and there is laughter in that recognition. Lots of it. Their antics and angst may be aggravating to Nick (played intelligently by Jeffrey Schmidt), but it totally disarms us--sucks us in for the duration.
When Nick is finally allowed to announce that he is thinking about taking a job in Seattle, his grandparents scam to keep him close by. "He didn't say he wanted to move," says Grandma Emma (Barbara Beirbrier) as if justifying what she is about to do. "He said he had no reason to stay." Emma then gives him a reason, inviting over "the unmarried niece of one of her canasta partners," the eye-pleasing Irish immigrant Caitlin O'Hare (finally an accent that sticks) for Sunday dinner. In what becomes the play's funniest scene, Nick's grandparents might as well have stripped him naked before Caitlin (Kelly Grandjean) as they reveal more than any first date has a right to know. In a clever reversal, Nick is actually attracted to Caitlin, which, of course, is not supposed to happen when your grandparents fix you up.
We all know what Nick ought to do: After all, he is 29 years old, which is pretty damn late in life for a coming-of-age play. He should move on, but after taking a nostalgic voyage with his endearing grandparents, we come to appreciate what is keeping him stuck. There is no formula for it, Nick laments. "How much do you owe those who care for you?" If there is any more subtext to his motivation it comes from the immigrant experience itself, from those many ethnic groups who came to America searching for a better life for their children than they had for themselves. But by better life, they didn't necessarily mean different life, and Nick is trapped between Old World values--tengo famiglia--and New World ambitions--getting ahead in the corporate workplace. This makes his crisis a bit more palpable, and by the play's bittersweet end, we collectively celebrate the world he may leave behind and the charming people who inhabit it.
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