BWW Reviews: SCR Stages Funny Debut Play THE PRINCE OF ATLANTIS
In THE PRINCE OF ATLANTIS, Steven Drukman's funny new play set in the heavy-accented neighborhood of Nonantum, Massachusetts, the characters all seem to believe that the key to good relations with others and living a good life (or at least a nicer-than-average one) is to make things appear better than they really are for everyone else...and, perhaps, even extend the delusion for themselves as well. The comical, sometimes touching play is currently enjoying a fully-staged World Premiere production at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through April 29.
This philosophy of facades—the primary ideology everyone in the play subscribes to—is something that seafood magnate Joey Colletti (played by The Breakfast Club's John Kapelos) certainly swears by, even as he is incarcerated in a minimum-security prison just outside Boston for, of course, knowingly mis-labeling boatloads of crates of his imported fish—the source of his enormous fortune.
"Truth is ugly," he tells his ne'er do well brother Kevin (charmingly aloof Matthew Arkin) during a visit. "Varnish it into something pretty."
It's obvious right from the start that two have a very functional, yet dysfunctional relationship—in which probably more often than not, Joey comes away as the victor. Thus begins Joey's latest scheme that requires Kevin's full participation.
During an amusing, colloquially-flavored conversation with his brother at an outdoor recreation area within the prison, we (along with Kevin) learn that right before he was carted off to jail, Joey was contacted by someone claiming to be his biological son, hoping to eventually meet. Joey believes the child to be indeed his—possibly the product of a drunken night more than twenty years earlier at a high school kegger with class hottie Katie Donahue, who must have later given the child up for adoption.
With just a mere nine months left in his prison sentence, Joey—the self-proclaimed "King of Atlantis"—guilts his seemingly directionless, former mental-hospital patient brother Kevin to pose as Joey in an e-mail reply to the young man. In the e-mail, Kevin (pretending to be Joey) is supposed to say that his high-fallutin' career has forced him abroad for the next few months and that he would happily meet face-to-face with him upon his return from the Orient.
This, Joey figures, would keep the kid placated for a bit, leaving open the possibility of meeting under better circumstances. Joey's intentions appear to have future implications, too: he knows that one day, he will have to abdicate his seafood empire to a rightful heir—a "Prince," so to speak, to rule over Atlantis.
And who better to leave his throne to than a grown man that possibly shares his DNA? Joey would certainly prefer this scenario over leaving the business to his go-nowhere brother or—Inga!—the children he hopes NOT to have in the future with his intended fiancée, the outspokenly brash Connie (the wonderful Nike Doukas).
Hesitant to participate in the plan at first, Kevin agrees to do the deed—a small task he can do in exchange for what feels like a lifetime's worth of assistance and supervision from Joey after their parents died (the broken, 45-year-old Kevin is oh so "helpfully" reminded that he is basically unemployable except as a lowly warehouse worker at his own brother's company, where his questionable past—and proclivity for "queer" things like poetry and theater plays—are overlooked).
But like most schemes steeped in "overchay" (local jargon for "fabrication"), things are bound to not work out as planned. While comfortably squatting at his brother's obnoxiously-decorated, marine-themed mansion much longer than he was authorized, Kevin is discovered by Connie, who doesn't seem to mind the situation at all (Joey's directive was for Kevin to sneak into the house, write and send that e-mail, then sneak back out—and if he has time, water the lawn).
Like something out of a sitcom, Connie inadvertently intercepts a phone call—thinking it was another one of those local goons demanding payouts from her jailbird boyfriend—only to discover that it's Joey's long-lost son Miles Overten (the terrific Brett Ryback), calling from New York about the touching e-mail he just received from his "father." Unaware of the lie Joey and Kevin have concocted, Connie assures Miles that he's welcome to drop by the manse anytime even though Joey isn't there. And, of course, as fate—and comedy—would have it, he does.
After a well-received reading at last year's Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, this fully-mounted World Premiere production of THE PRINCE OF ATLANTIS—directed with appropriately brisk pacing by Warner Shook—is a pleasant surprise. Cross-breeding themes of family connections with exterior facades, the play addresses the notion of biology playing a part in the shaping of a person. Do we really end up repeating the deeds—or perhaps sins—of our fathers, even if we don't know them?
With THE PRINCE OF ATLANTIS, Drukman has fashioned an engaging comedy that allows for plenty of heartwarming moments to go with all this outrageous behavior on display. Its approachable, blue-collar-ness is actually what makes it a really good play. The characters may seem way out there, but they're also easily relatable. And, yes, even though I pretty much saw the "Big Secret" many miles (haha) ahead of the play's climax, I still couldn't help but get teary-eyed about how it all plays out. (Which reminds me, I should really give my parents a call soon).
The play straddles a fine line between humor and pathos in plenty of key places, particularly when Kevin first meets his supposed nephew Miles for the first time, and for the satisfying, albeit predictable ending revelation. It's funny when it needs to be and, thankfully, quite touching when it really counts.
While the play, like most first-timers, feels a bit rough around the edges, its foundation—like its main protagonist Kevin—has some worthy sturdiness that's there beneath the surface. The play incorporates a lot of regional speech—a heavily-accented dialect that mixes Romany, Italian, and English syntax with street slang from the '30s and '40s—that's a foreign language all its own. While it certainly adds an authenticity so specific that it requires a glossary in the program, it also makes for a lot of jumbled back-and-forths that could pose a challenge for a few audience members with short attention spans. It's a minor gripe in an otherwise entertaining play.
And, of course, the play's pleasurable forward momentum is helped along by the undeniable likability of all four of its splendid cast members. As Miles, the play's would-be Prince, Ryback turns in a superb performance full of charm and adorkable sweetness that fits his lost-puppy of a character. He is saddled, pretty much, with not only bringing a lot of heart to the role but actually eliciting a lot of instant affection from the other characters as well (and in the process, he wins us, too). This is the second performance from Ryback I've seen at SCR that I absolutely adore.
As Connie, Joey's blazing spitfire of a girlfriend, scene-stealing Doukas reins in her very showy role enough to be hilariously over-the-top without being too grating. Her banter with each of the boys all have such wonderful wordplay and is brimming with personality.
In Kapelos' hands, jailbird Joey more than transcends what could have been just another malicious man looking out for himself with one money-making scheme after another. Even in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit, Kapelos manages to make his dick of a character a likable, charismatic schlub—who also just happens to be a total tool. No wonder Connie loves the guy.
And finally, as poor, stunted Kevin, Arkin (yes, Alan's son) expertly peppers his character with fine, noticeable quirks and nuances that provide a deep well of emotional resonance. Kevin has a lot of baggage and Arkin does an admirable job dispensing—and reacting to—these with palpable thoughtfulness. His face alone speaks volumes of his character's journey.
Kudos also go to Thomas Buderwitz's clever sets, most especially the kitsch wonderland he created to personify Joey's playful mansion. How fun it must have been to create a chandelier in the shape of an octopus!
Overall, THE PRINCE OF ATLANTIS is a witty and surprisingly poignant contemporary comedy with a few rough edges smoothed over by its undeniable charm and accessibility. More than anything, the play reminds us that while we can't choose who we're biologically related to, we can at least choose how we treat and deal with each other to define our relationships.
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Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR. From top: Kevin (Matthew Arkin) visits his brother Joey (John Kapelos) in jail; Kevin comforts his newly-discovered nephew Miles (Brett Ryback); Kevin shares stories of Joey with Joey's girlfriend Connie (Nike Doukas).
Performances of THE PRINCE OF ATLANTIS continue at South Coast Repertory through April 29, 2012. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights and 8:00 p.m. on Thursday - Saturday nights. Matinees start at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
A FREE Post-Show Discussion will be held with members of the cast on Tuesday, April 17.
Tickets, priced from $20 to $68, can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.