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Theatre in Review: The Portuguese Kid (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Sherie Rene Scott, Aimee Carrero, Jason Alexander. Photo: Richard Termine.

The conventional wisdom is that Jason Alexander, Sherie Rene Scott, and Mary Testa are starring in The Portuguese Kid; in truth, they're propping it up. Whatever amusement is to be found in John Patrick Shanley's makeshift and often mystifying charade is entirely due to the efforts of these three -- and none of them is having an easy time of it.

In some ways, the most put-upon is Alexander, cast as Barry Dragonetti, a lawyer, who, as the play begins, is meeting with Atalanta Lagana, a not-so-merry widow who wants her estate settled, ASAP. Barry discovers all sorts of irregularities in her legal papers, which were drawn up by another, clearly less detail-oriented, attorney. Barry asks Atalanta why she and her late husband, Vincent -- his lifelong friends -- didn't trust him to handle their matters. Trust, as it happens, was the issue: Vincent grew suspicious when his wife began calling out Barry's name during intercourse; this habit, she adds, also plagued her first marriage. "Let me be clear, Barry. I've been shouting out your name for twenty-five years." Barry, stunned, replies, "Even the women I've been with don't call my name."

Alexander gives the line everything he's got -- which is saying something -- but, even so, he can only wring a modest chuckle from it. Things don't improve for him at home, where he is often locked in conflict with his much-younger wife, Patty. When he refuses to turn on the swimming pool heater, the following exchange ensues:

Patty: Damn, son, you're too cheap to keep.

Barry: You haven't seen cheap. Atalanta's the cheap one. Did you see Vincent's coffin?

Patty: What about it?

Barry: It was Formica. It looked like he was being buried in a luncheonette.

This isn't humor designed to make a point, and it's not even a decent bit of vaudeville; it's just dialogue that lurches in the direction of comedy, untouched by reality, hoping merely that its rat-a-tat pace will gull an audience into laughing. Alexander runs through his full repertoire of takes and slow burns, putting to work his considerable gift for timing, and, when all else fails, barking his lines, as if fury alone could give a punch line some punch. It's a mug's game, however.

Scott, enclosed in a series of body-hugging wrap dresses accessorized with opera gloves and huge Jackie O sunglasses, her blonde hair falling in cascades, makes a most fetching antagonist, but the character Shanley has fashioned is abrasive and selfish, the kind of woman you cross the street to avoid. Commenting on her deceased husband, she says, "He never drove. He never did anything. I'm lucky I noticed he was dead." We're also supposed to believe that Atalanta has set her cap at Barry, but what we see is her nagging him to sell her house and accept a miniscule fee for doing so. There's no vigor in her double-dealing, no real acid in her insults; when Barry's mother -- more about her in a minute -- announces that she's listening in on their conversation via the intercom, the best response Shanley can give Atalanta is "Who cares, you old lobster trap?" Scott has a nifty way of pulling herself up to her full height and executing a quarter turn, like a crane, suddenly spying a tasty morsel, before delivering a line, and she has a wicked little smile as she sits back and watches the guests have at each other during a little luncheon she has thrown. But she can't keep Atalanta from being a pain in the neck.

This goes double for Mary Testa as Barry's mother, who works as his receptionist. Most of the time, Mrs. Dragonetti isn't much fun. Interrupting an argument between Barry and Atalanta, she shouts, "Barry's not a shyster! He's just a lousy lawyer!" She has also moved in with Barry and Patty, where she drives them (and the audience) up the wall, as in this supposedly riotous conversation:

Mrs. D: You just leave your glass in the sink?

Patty: I'll get to it.

Mrs. D: When? If I wait for you, we'll get bugs.

Patty: It's a water glass! You don't get bugs from water.

Mrs. D: You ever hear of water bugs?

Patty's response ("The only bugs we've gotta worry about are the ones in your head") is on the same level of wit. The Portuguese Kid also invites us to chuckle, repeatedly, over the fact that Mrs. Dragonetti has only nine toes, thanks to a personal vendetta with Atalanta. Still, Testa has the ability to get a laugh merely from entering a room, bearing a baleful expression -- which is a good thing, because Shanley offers her precious little help.

There's a sort-of plot element, about Atalanta's pursuit of Barry, which is complicated by the fact that Patty's ex-lover, Freddie, is Alatanta's current boy toy. Aimee Carrero is pretty funny at times as Patty, especially when explaining, as per her therapist, that she is still "recovering from the trauma of being born beautiful," and Pico Alexander does well by Freddie, a typical Shanley schmo, who talks like a tough guy but who would really rather be in Paris, writing poetry. Barry is also haunted by an incident from his youth, when Atalanta saved him from a violent young Portuguese kid who was attacking him -- hence the title -- which left him feeling unmanned for not dispatching the boy himself. This is a good place to point out that the script is loaded with broad stereotypes about the characters' ethnicities: Freddie is a specimen of Italian machismo, Patty is a fiery Latina, and Atalanta is a fickle Greek goddess in human form.

Shanley also directed, and at least he keeps things hustling along; also, nobody can accuse Manhattan Theatre Club of not spending lavishly on this trifle. The theatre's turntable is kept busy, revealing one intentionally overdecorated John Lee Beatty set after another, which are lit by Peter Kaczorowski with his usual sensitivity. William Ivey Long's costumes have many sly touches. Obadiah Eaves has provided some bouncy bouzouki melodies for the scene changes, as well as such effects as birdsong.

I sometimes think that the name John Patrick Shanley is a corporate title for several different writers, so varied is his output, in both subject matter and quality. His attempts at straight-up romantic comedy are among his least successful -- Romantic Poetry, Where's My Money, Psychopathia Sexualis among them. The Portuguese Kid is so old-fashioned in style and humor that one wonders if it hasn't been sitting around for some time. In any case, they don't write them like this anymore, and, as this script demonstrates, there's a reason for that. -- David Barbour

(13 November 2017)

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