Friday, July 7, 2017

40 (2017-2018): Review: NAPOLI, BROOKLYN (seen July 6, 2017)

"After the Fall"

On the snowy morning of Friday, December 16, 1960, when I was 20 and still living with my parents in Brooklyn, a catastrophe I can still remember occurred in Park Slope, several miles from home. That event, recreated with sudden explosive force toward the end of Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn, is far more powerfully dramatic than anything else in her heartfelt but otherwise patchy depiction of dysfunction in a Park Slope family when the event—described with photos on lobby placards—occurred.
Elise Kibler, Lilly Kay, Jordyn DiNatale. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Napoli, Brooklyn is about the Muscolinos, vaguely reminiscent of the Carbones in Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Nic (Michael Rispoli, “The Sopranos”) and Ludovica a.k.a. Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) Muscolino—stereotypes both—are the heavily-accented, opera-loving, immigrant parents of three daughters. This irks the macho Nic, a contractor, who gets one of the play’s few laughs by blaming the local water for his not having produced a son. Nic, a bully who lashes out physically when aggrieved, has beaten his 26-year-old daughter Vita (Elise Kibler) so badly she's forced to recover from the broken nose he inflicted on her amidst the silent nuns in a prison-like convent.
Jordyn DiNatale, Michael Rispoli. Photo: Joan Marcus.
His middle daughter, the rough-spoken, 20-year-old Tina (Lilli Kay), sacrificing herself for her family, has a tedious job at a Kentile factory, where her friend and coworker, an African-American woman named Celia Jones (Shirine Babb), encourages her to get an education. In a moment of overstatement by director Gordon Edelstein, we see that Celia’s an avid reader when she takes a five-second break from stacking tiles to glance at a book she keeps in her apron. (By the by, if you happen to know how Kentile, decades later, fell into major legal trouble because of litigation over asbestos poisoning, you’ll realize the extent of Tina’s sacrifice.)

The youngest daughter, 16-year-old Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), has recently taken the scissors to her hair, a reflection of her lesbian inclinations. Francesca’s inamorata is another teen, Connie Duffy (Juliet Brett), with whom she plots to stowaway to Paris (Nic was a stowaway from Naples) where their love will no longer be forbidden.
Erik Lochtefeld, Alyssa Bresnahan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Connie’s the daughter of the local butcher, Irish immigrant Albert Duffy (Eric Lochtefeld), who, in his gentlemanly way, professes his affection for Luda. She, the family’s backbone and master chef, is the play’s heart and soul, struggling to maintain a sense of love and decency amidst the anger and pain inflicted by Nic, with its consequent bitterness among the three sisters.
Michael Rispoli, Jordyn DiNatale, Elise Kibler, Alyssa Bresnhan, Erik Lochtefeld, Shirine Babb, Lilli Kay. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Act One slowly sets up these multiple character and plot strands, showing the problems everyone faces in trying to live at peace with one another, and how the differing goals of each sister are on the brink of disrupting whatever family unity remains. Then, Boom! As in life, when least expected, tragedy strikes. Act Two, which examines the aftermath, seeks to bring a resolution to the group dynamic.

The Christmas dinner that brings everyone together to relish Luda’s pasta has the single most moving moment, but it’s between the minor characters of Duffy and Celia, whose dark-skinned face, it might be noted, Nic can’t bring himself to look at. Given the racial feelings of people like him during the period, it’s next to astonishing he even allows her into his house. Also effective is Luda’s proto-feminist speech of encouragement to Connie at the end, although it seems more like the voice of the playwright speaking than the character herself.
Lilli Kay, Shirine Babb, Alyssa Bresnahan, Elise Kibler, Jordyn DiNatale, Erik Lochtefeld, Michael Rispoli. Photo: Joan Marcus.
While the multiple narrative strands tend to weaken the overall emotional impact, the writing is often too self-conscious to fully engage interest and belief. Giving Luda a habit of revealing her fear of losing her faith by having her speak to an onion because she's no longer able to cry is a disturbing bit of whimsy. So is having Tina soliloquize her thoughts in what’s otherwise a play of kitchen-sink realism.

Several elements don’t always pass the plausibility test. Nic’s violence seems more forced than organic; it takes so little to push his buttons it’s a wonder he’s not up the river. And, for all their assumed difficulties with English,  Nic and Luda's vocabulary and syntax strain credibility. But even these flaws could easily be overlooked if the company wasn’t so disparate in its ability to recreate this specific time and place.

Edelstein’s direction has not been able to create a cohesively believable tone, not even with the help of dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Without that tone, every inauthentic intonation and pronunciation—whether Italian, Irish, or Brooklynese—reminds you that the right casting (even with Italian-American actors) of plays like this can solve 9/10s of their problems. They may have grown up together, for instance, but each sister sounds like she’s from another neighborhood. Certainly, it's smart to differentiate them, but this way is too distracting. Still, artificial Italian accent aside, Bresnahan stands out for the fortitude and wisdom she conveys as the indomitable Ludovica.

Eugene Lee’s spare setting, its backdrop showing a row of 19th-century brownstones, allows for the episodic narrative and multiple locations to be represented mainly by overhead signs—a tile factory, a butcher shop, Jesus on the Cross, and a stained glass window. The period-perfect costumes are by the redoubtable Jane Greenwood, while Ben Stanton’s lighting keeps the intensity low until he and Lee together, abetted by sound designer Fritz Patton, create the memorable effect that brings Act One to a climax.

Meghan Kennedy, whose Too Much, Too Much, Too Many was a Roundabout selection in 2013, is a promising playwright. Napoli, Brooklyn shows that the promise remains; fulfillment, though, is yet to come.


Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through September 3