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Theatre in Review: Napoli, Brooklyn (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)

Elise Kibler, Lilli Kay, Jordyn DiNatale. Photo: Joan Marcus

Napoli, Brooklyn is, for much of its running time, a remarkably sluggish drama built around a first-act curtain so shocking that I'm a little surprised it doesn't nightly inspire an audience panic attack. It's a force majeure event that, as staged by Gordon Edelstein and his crack design team, literally blows Meghan Kennedy's play apart; sadly, it also casts a stark light on the weaknesses of a script that is overburdened with simmering plot lines that never quite come to a boil.

The main theme of Napoli, Brooklyn, is the overthrow of the patriarchy in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1960, in a family where Albert Camus is pitted against Mario Lanza and Neapolitan ballads vie with the Shirelles. Nic Muscolino, an immigrant who works as a street paver, presides over a household of unhappy, abused women. He has a kind of sadomasochistic relationship with his wife, Luda, burning her with a cigarette before their lovemaking and accepting one hard slap from her after one of his violent outbursts. Their eldest daughter, Tina, is something of a drab, slaving away in a factory making floor tiles, but there's plenty of volatility farther down the family line. Vita, the middle daughter, has been packed off to a convent, having menaced Nic with a pair of scissors; she was defending her younger sister, Francesca, who had severely cut her hair, from Nic's blows. This incident was a proxy war over a reality that is only gradually coming to light among them: Francesca, at 16, is a lesbian, in love with Connie, the daughter of the neighborhood's Irish butcher; the two girls have a plan to stow away on a ship to France, where they intend to start over. In another writer's hands, this might seem a cute conceit, but these girls mean business; they have money stashed away and a minute-by-minute escape strategy that involves deceiving Tina on a trip to Coney Island.

Is that enough plot for you? I haven't even mentioned Tina's growing friendship with a black coworker -- Nic is also a racist -- or the desire of the widowed butcher to spirit Luda away from her troubled household. A John Patrick Shanley could whip these elements into a frenzy closer to grand opera than naturalistic theatre, but Kennedy has trouble combining them into something dramatically combustible; instead of having them build on each other, the play seems to be starting over each time it switches focus. There are several allegedly poetic touches that come across as too calculatedly folkloric, such as Luda's habit of sniffing a large onion -- presumably, it reminds her of the old country -- and her frequent tussles with God, whom she is forever confronting, blaming Him for preventing her from crying, despite her heavy load of grief.

Then disaster rings down the first act, in a bit of staging that is a tribute to the skill of set designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Ben Stanton, and sound designer Fitz Patton. (If you don't like being jolted out of your seat by special effects, this is not the show for you.) It also represents a startlingly daring gambit on the part of the playwright, throwing everyone's plans into chaos and forcing them to deal with a radically changed Nic, who believes that God has saved him from certain death. This does lead to arguably the play's best scene, in which nearly everyone is invited to a Christmas dinner that can't help but ignite into a series of bitter confrontations. Even so, Kennedy leaves plenty of plot lines dangling. Celia, the black factory worker, exists mostly as a sounding board for Tina, and Francesca's fate is left mysteriously unclear. The characters often behave in ways that are hard to credit for Catholic immigrants of the time, such as the plan cooked up by Albert Duffy, the butcher, to move to the country with Luda posing as his wife, and a lengthy speech by Luda affirming Francesca and Connie's right to love women. For that matter, would Francesca and Connie meet under a bright streetlight and indulge in a little necking? In the parlance of their time and place, they would be cruisin' for a bruisin'.

Under Edelstein's direction, the standout performances include Alyssa Bresnahan, who makes something coherent of the many stray pieces that make up Luda's character, finding the tensile strength hidden under her often eccentric manner. Jordyn DiNatale, Lilli Kay, and Elise Kibler are all convincing as Francesca, Tina, and Vita, although the play doesn't make a strong case for why Vita, who is twenty, doesn't blow the convent and set out on her own. Erik Lochtefeld, Juliet Brett, and Shirine Babb are all effective as Albert, Connie, and Celia. Michael Rispoli works up a fine sense of menace as Nic, but the character is underwritten and subject to hairpin turns of attitude that the actor struggles to render coherent.

Lee's set ingeniously places several arrangements of furniture against a stunning, photorealistic drop of a Brooklyn streetscape; this approach allows the action to move from scene to scene with no dead time whatsoever. (Adding extra atmosphere is a series of store and factory signs, along with a church's rose window.) Stanton's lighting is crucial to these transitions; he also provides a number of warm interior looks and something colder and starker for that notably cheerless holiday meal. Jane Greenwood's costumes show once again why she has the finest eye for detail of anyone in the business; the clothes are illuminating both in terms of period and the individual characters. Patton's sound effects include radio broadcasts, the hum of factory machines, seagulls, and a church organ.

Napoli, Brooklyn, represents a major leap forward from Kennedy's last play, Too Much, Too Much, Too Many, but making something compelling of this messy, ambitious work somehow eludes her grasp. She has yet to come up with a dramatic explosion that the design department can't match. -- David Barbour

(5 July 2017)

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