John Patrick Shanley is a New York City native. A prolific playwright and screenwriter, he is best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck and for his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winning play, Doubt: A Parable. Italian American Reconciliation, currently being produced by Scripps Ranch Theatre, dates from the 1980s Moonstruck era and reflects many of Mr. Shanley’s fascinations, as well as the Little Italy of his day. Given societal changes, it takes a good deal of finesse to make it work as a contemporary story. The Scripps Ranch production hadn’t found that finesse as of opening night.
The play begins with a long monologue for Aldo (John DeCarlo), a 30-something man who seems nervous and who tries, unsuccessfully, acting like a stand-up comedian to cover the nerves. During the course of the monologue, Aldo explains that his buddy, Huey (Marco Kengott) has broken up with his wife, Janice (Lynnia Shanley). Things had gotten so bad between them that Janice had shot and killed Huey’s dog and had taken a potshot at Huey, too.
Huey has been dating Teresa (Gina Maria Cioffi), a young woman who runs a soup shop in the neighborhood. Teresa has been complaining to her Aunt May (Rhiannon McAfee) about Huey’s lack of attention, as well as about her desire to have more of a life than she does currently. Huey, for his part, has been complaining about Teresa’s apparent lack of interest and decides that he is going to break up with Teresa and try to reconcile with Janice.
During the monologue, Aldo spots an oddly dressed woman sitting in the audience. He becomes agitated and tells her to leave. She pretends to comply and then comes back into the theatre. Aldo gets mad again, tells her to leave and mentions that he will meet her later at P. J. Clarke’s. The woman departs and doesn’t return.
The play proceeds to show Huey and Teresa fumbling around about breaking up and Aldo’s attempt to help Huey reconcile with Janice. Aldo breaks into Janice’s rear yard and gets her to come out on a balcony. He tries to tell her about Huey’s desire to see her again but instead of acting like Cyrano de Bergerac, he ends up becoming a dumbstruck Romeo to Janice’s increasingly agitated Juliet.
Eventually, Huey arrives, talks to Janice, and – well, I shan’t spoil the rest. Other than to say that Aldo decides to head for P. J. Clarke’s to meet the woman he kicked out earlier.
I provide this much detail to point out that Mr. Shanley often set his plays in the New York neighborhoods that he loved and wanted to capture those neighborhoods and their denizens as accurately as possible. And, the characters he portrays in Italian American Reconciliation are men and women who are caught in a bind. Men have to prove their manhood in some way; women are seen as either Madonnas or whores, and so women who don’t want to be either are caught. I’ll bet that you can figure out why Aldo was embarrassed to see the strangely-dressed woman in the audience – and I’ll bet that you can figure out why he planned to meet her at P. J. Clarke’s.
Under Charles Peters’ direction, the cast members recite their lines well but show little insight into how they are caught in a culture that pleases none of them. Mr. DeCarlo, for all of his bluster and braggadocio, at least gets a moment or so in the script to reflect on why he’s been unable to find a woman to marry, let alone date successfully.
The production gets the job done. Mr. Peters’ set design provides a unit construction that gives space to the pop-open soup diner and Janice’s balcony. Kevin “Blax” Burroughs’ lighting design cleverly uses strings of small lights to provide a soft evening glow but occasionally leaves performers in the dark. Pamela Stompoly-Ericson’s costume designs are simple, and the shirt that Mr. Kengott wears for much of the play is great for the embarrassment it is supposed to bring his character. Steven Murdock’s sound design features crickets and other neighborhood noises.
Mr. Shanley has written better plays, and New York City’s Little Italy is a whole different place than its San Diego counterpart, which may well be the cast’s referent. But, here’s hoping that the Scripps Ranch players will continue to explore how their characters love “not wisely but too well” for the rest of the play’s run.
Performs Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:00pm through February 16, 2020, at the Legler Benbough Theatre on the Alliant International University campus. Parking is available a short walk from the theatre. The production runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. This review was based on the press opening performance, Saturday, January 18, 2020.