“Mothers, Marriage, Moonlight, Men—and Donald Trump”
If you’re looking for a profanity-laced, contemporary version of those mildly naughty Broadway sex comedies of the 50s and 60s, like The Seven-Year Itch or Send Me No Flowers, which filled summer stock stages year after year, you might find the world premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid to your liking. Others will hope that this overblown farce is a temporary aberration and that Shanley will soon retrieve the talent that gave us such terrific work as Outside Mullingar, Doubt, and the movie Moonstruck.
The Portuguese Kid isn’t Off Broadway but it features Broadway-level stars Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, whose George Costanza seems to live again in his current role) and Sherie Rene Scott (Everyday Rapture) doing their gifted best to keep its sinking attempts at humor afloat by sheer vocal, physical, and charismatic force. Occasionally, a good laugh does bubble up from the depths; not enough, though, to turn the tide in its favor.
Following tried and true mathematical playwriting principles, Shanley introduces two intertwined couples. One is 50ish Barry Dragonetti (Alexander), a flashily overdressed attorney, son of an Italian father and a Croatian mother, and his 29-year old bimbo wife, Patty (Aimee Carrero); she’s a Latina knockout first seen in a bikini and sarong that makes it tough to look anywhere else when she’s on stage. (William Ivey Long’s costumes are all spot-on.)
The other couple is Atalanta Lagana (Scott), a glamorous, wealthy, 50-year-old widow of Greek ancestry, and her bimbo boy toy, 29-year-old Freddie Imbrosi (Pico Alexander), whose awful poetry is sprinkled with references to moonlight.
Naturally, Barry and Atalanta, who come from Providence, have a long history (she even admits the harmful effect on her husbands of her calling out Barry’s name during sex), as do their bimbo partners. You can see where this is going the minute all the characters have been introduced.
Atalanta, a program note reminds us, was a speedy, Greek mythological princess, who agreed to marry the first man to beat her in a race, the losers to be executed. The eventual winner, helped by the goddess Aphrodite, beat Atalanta by slowing her down when he dropped three golden balls along the route, leading to a happy marriage. On the other hand, Shanley also likens Atalanta to Clytemnestra, who killed her husband, Agamemnon.
Adding fuel to the wavering comic fire, there’s Barry’s smothering mother, Mrs. Dragonetti, whose monstrous dislike for both Atalanta and Patty, ruthlessly expressed in comically toxic sniping, offers Mary Testa an opportunity for one of the larger-than-life hilarious portrayals that are her well-deserved bread and butter.
The plot, such as it is, concerns what happens when Atalanta hires the shyster Barry to sell her $5.5 million home. Each of the play’s four scenes, thanks to a revolving stage, gets a substantial John Lee Beatty set (efficiently lit by Peter Kaczorowski)—Barry’s office, Atalanta’s bedroom, the porch of Barry’s beach house, Atalanta’s garden. The usual complications, sexual and romantic, arise, with a predictable outcome.
Along the way, the humor—including everyone’s overripe working-class accents—touches on Barry’s sales commission, Atalanta’s widowhood, the fire-breathing Mrs. Dragonetti’s dragonish insults, Barry’s conviction that the Italian-American Freddie is the Portuguese kid who once attacked him, Freddie’s awful poetry and his French-mangling dream of moving to Paris, Barry’s jealousy (there’s even a ridiculous brawl scene resulting in Barry’s priapic embarrassment), and his defense of male prerogatives.
In the latter connection, Shanley, for easy, joke-making, topical relevance, makes Atalanta such a Trump hater that anyone who voted for him would have to be crazy to admit it. Trump again gets the shallow last laugh.
The Portuguese Kid is old hat, its jokes are uninspired, and it’s all too overstated and laugh-hungry. Fortunately, under Shanley’s unsubtle direction, the cast is highly polished and the energy never flags, even on the two occasions Mrs. Dragonetti celebrates a victory by dancing as the set rolls off beneath her. As in those summer stock days of yore, the audience seemed to be having fun. Some, though, were grateful they didn’t have to groan under their breaths for more than an hour and 40 uninterrupted minutes.
Manhattan Theatre Club/ NY City Center Stage 1
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through December 3