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BWW Review: NAPOLI, BROOKLYN at Long Wharf

Meghan Kennedy's Napoli, Brooklyn, which is now making its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a promising play about a struggling Italian family. The play will transfer to the Roundabout Theatre in New York City in June, and the best hope for it is to use the same superb director, Gordon Edelstein, cast, and designers.

The play is loosely based on the playwright's perception of her mother's adolescence in Brooklyn and a plane crash that happened in 1960 near her apartment building. The playwright's intention was to tell the story of an immigrant family that finds the American dream elusive and how the plane crash affected them. The plane crash did happen in real life, but the rest of the story lacks credibility because of the socioeconomic factors that were in place during that time. The Muscolino and Duffy families arrived in the United States during the 1940s and their children were all born Americans. When World War II ended, there was plenty of opportunity for Nic Muscolino (Jason Kolotouros) to earn a decent living paving roads as communities were being built as returning soldiers were getting married and starting families. (Remember, during those years, most families could live on one income.) Nic is written as a hot-headed abusive man to his wife, Luda, (Alyssa Bresnahan) and to his daughters, Tina (Christina Pumariega), Vita (Carolyn Braver), and Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale). In 1960, when the country was prosperous and further buoyed by the election of John F. Kennedy and his universally admired family, Nic is still struggling to make ends meet, and praises Tina as his only worthy daughter because she left school to work in a packing box factor to help the family. "Those cuts [on her hands]," he says, "are like shining crowns....those are the signs of her work."

The play would have benefited from having a narrator, probably one of the sisters to pull together the many fragmented elements of the story. Vita is exiled to a convent because of her "Hot Mouth," but it was really to recover from the broken nose, broken ribs, and injured knee from her father's violence. Francesca wants to keep hearing her father's reminiscences of coming to America as a stowaway because she and her friend and lover, Connie Duffy (Ryann Shane), daughter of AlFred Duffy (Graham Winton) plan to escape that way to France so they can be free to love each other. Another subplot is Tina's growing friendship with her co-worker, Celia Jones (Shirine Babb). Tina is barely literate, and Celia inspires her to improve her literacy skills and her life. Then there is the matriarch, Luda. She is portrayed as a stereotypical Italian mama - faithful wife, loving mother, fabulous cook. Luda is feisty, and her loyalty to Nic is hard to accept, even as she tells him, "I know what every part of you needs." It would have been far more interesting, as well as plausible, if she reached her tipping point when Vic attacked Vita so viciously. Women had options, even then. Think: MildrEd Pierce and her pies. Luda could make a gourmet dish just by flavoring onions.

The tie that binds all the characters together is the plane crash, which is meant for each of them to rethink their lives. But those ties are loose. Luda didn't take up Mr. Duffy's offer to start a new life. Vic, who always bragged that he was a survivor because he willed himself to tune out the unpleasantness of living as a stowaway claimed that the Lord saved his life when the plane crashed. And then he decided to return to Italy alone. The hopes and dreams of the others should have been galvanized, not dissolved. So the play ends on a rather flat note, despite the magnificent performances by the actors.

Still, the play is worth seeing now and when it goes to New York City. There are a lot of things for the audience to think about - identity (a huge, sometimes divisive issue for immigrants and their children), prayer, dreams, hope, relationships, and personal strengths and weaknesses and how they affect those we love. Hopefully, the changes the play needs will be implemented by then.

The saving graces of the production are its flawless performances by every cast member, its excellent direction by Gordon Edelstein, and some of the unsung heroes that make the stage magic: set designer Eugene Lee, costume designer Jane Greenwood, lighting designer Ben Stanton, sound designer Fitz Patton. Kudos also to dialogue coach Stephen Gabis, hair and wig designer Tom Watson, makeup designer Tommy Kurzman, fight directors Rick Sordelet and ChristIan Kelly-Sordelet, and production stage manager Peter Wolf and his assistant Amy Patricia Stern. I hope that Carrie Gardner brings the entire cast to the Roundabout.

Napoli, Brooklyn plays at the Long Wharf Theatre through March 12 and then run at the Roundabout Theatre from June 9 through September 3. For more information, call 203-787-4282. The Long Wharf Theatre is located at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven.

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From This Author Sherry Shameer Cohen