Sunday, December 20, 2015

123. Review: HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE (seen December 18, 2015)

“Just Like a Pasta Fazool”
Remember “That’s Amore,” the song you hear at the start of the 1987 flick MOONSTRUCK, where Dean Martin sings “When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool”? Ever wonder what he’s talking about? Well, it’s a way of saying pasta a fagioli, a tasty, meatless dish of pasta and beans that came to mind as I watched Vincent Amelio’s HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE, a not entirely meatless romantic comedy about the Idellos, a bakery-owning New York Italian-American family and their women-addicted son, Alfo (Christopher Thom).
Nick DeSimone, Christian Thom, Armen Garo. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This lightweight Italian-American soup of stereotypes and verbal clichés, may, in fact, make you think of MOONSTRUCK itself, if only to ALFO’s detriment. Both tell of a single person—Alfo is 36, the movie’s heroine is 37—struggling with commitment issues while trapped in a tradition-bound family matrix of mother, father, and grandpa (among others). There are other echoes of MOONSTRUCK in ALFO, even including a bakery, but the plots are quite different. In the author’s words, “The play comes down to one statement: A man who adores women cannot find the one woman he is meant to love forever.”
Robert Funaro, Armen Garo, Christian Thom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Much of HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE (called HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE WOMEN in previous versions, including one for the 2010 New York Fringe Festival) takes place in the busy Idello Bakery, run by Alfo’s opera-loving dad, Sal (Robert Funaro), and mom, Maria (Joanna Bonaro). Also working there is Bellinda (Jenna D’Angelo), Alfo’s business-smart, but baking-challenged, big-haired sister, while hovering over all is the spirit of the bakery’s founder, Grandpa Idello (Armen Garo). The play mingles Alfo’s romantic issues with the sibling rivalry for succession to the business’s ownership, which will go to Alfo when and if he marries.
Christian Thom, Armen Garo, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Alfo's problems are disclosed during confession with a friendly young priest, Father Carmine (Nick DeSimone), which is just one of the ways the play mines familiar Catholic tropes for much of its humor. (An earlier version employed an attractive female therapist instead of a priest.) Alfo can’t commit to any one woman because he likes too many of them, even dating eight or nine at the same time. He also turns for advice to his chauvinistic childhood buddy, Tony Vallone (Dominick LaRuffa, Jr.), the malapropism-prone, “Jersey Shore” cugine who eventually marries cujinette Bellinda.
Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Christian Thom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Meanwhile, the ghostly Grandpa, who’s waiting to get into heaven, comments on everything, particularly about his grandson’s romantic relationships. He becomes especially active when Alfo shows an interest in Bellinda’s still single girlhood friend, Gianna Gionfrida (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), Alfo’s teenage crush (she's three years older), who suddenly shows up after being out of touch for 20 years. (The action shifts between time periods.) Grandpa springs into action, telling him exactly what to say to her, almost like Cyrano whispering lines to Christian in CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

This whimsical device quickly becomes annoying, partly because it’s overdone and partly because the hulking physical presence of Armen Garo (a former kickboxing champ who resembles Brian Dennehy) steals focus, dwarfing the indeterminate Alfo. Alfo—like the insipid Christian—becomes more of a shadow than his dead grandfather; his ability to see and hear the old man in the presence of others, not to mention his own talking back, suggests the guy’s got too much cheese in his cannoli.
Christian Thom, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE, which runs an hour and 45 minutes with an unnecessary intermission, actually contains some appealing material; surprisingly, though, considering all the actors with vowel-ending names—except for the pleasant but miscast Mr. Thom—the production rarely succeeds in realizing it. Some actors underplay, others are too broad, and the comic style never coalesces. Daisy Walker’s direction fails to inspire any urgency, there’s little rhythmic coherence, and several actors swallow their final words. Only Ms. Cipoletti seems just right.
Robert Funaro, Joanna Bonaro. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The technical elements hold few surprises: Steven C. Kemp's modest set, efficiently lit by Patricia M. Nichols, consists of a few functional pieces of furniture downstage of several shelved units displaying cakes. These can be moved aside (usually by Grandpa) to create openings or reversed to show more solid rear sides. Kevin R. Reed’s everyday costumes are more or less what you’d expect.
Jenna D'Angelo, Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Joanna Bonaro, Robert Funaro, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Christian Thom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The audience laughed far more often at this pasta fazool than I, especially at the meager tidbits of comedic originality, as when Tony compares marriage to eating pizza. On the other hand, if you’re looking for the moon to hit you in the eye like a big pizza pie, I can’t promise it’ll happen at HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE.


59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through January 3