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Napoli, Brooklyn

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 


Nappoli, Brooklyn

Cast of Napoli, Brooklyn. Photographer: Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

There is a definitive time - 1960, and place - Brooklyn, and characters - an Italian family poised at the brim of a tumultuous decade that will shake up racial equality, gay rights, equal opportunities for women. Unfortunately, playwright Meghan Kennedy’s premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre is tackling an intriguing era with a stereotyped cast and an unsatisfying text.

Under Gordon Edelstein’s deft direction with fine actors, Kennedy's play unravels in short episodes, each focused on a member of the Muscolino family. The play begins in their Park Slope tenement kitchen, where long-suffering matriarch Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) talks to an onion, a stand-in for God whom she feels has forgotten her. Luda's onion, with layers to peel back, reappears throughout the play, in the bedroom, the kitchen and in delicious meals around the kitchen table.

The patriarch, Nic (Michael Rispoli), is physically and emotionally brutal.  Wife, Luda, tries to keep peace with their three daughters. The eldest is ungainly, illiterate Tina, played by Lilli Kay, ordered by her father to quit school and work in a tile factory to help support the family. The youngest is a spunky 16-year-old lesbian, Francesca (Jordyn DiNatali) and the middle child, Vita (Elise Kibler), audacious and mouthy, stood up to her father who severely beat her. She was sent her to live in a convent with the nuns where Vita lost any faith she had. Each character is a convenient symbol of the social upheavals to come.

Three supporting characters add to the story. Francesca's best friend is Connie Duffy, played by Juliet Brett, and they are secretly in love. They plan to steal away on a ship and flee together to France where they dream of living  a free and creative life.  Connie's widowed father, Albert Duffy (Erik Lochtefeld), is a likable neighborhood butcher with an eye for Luda. In the factory, African-American Celia Jones (Shirine Babb) teaches Tina how to be a friend and how to accept friendship.

Edelstein paces the play leisurely until the end of Act I, when a sudden thunderous and violent explosion seems to shake the theater, filling the stage with dust and debris. Ben Stanton's lighting effects and ear-shattering sounds by Fitz Patton were frighteningly in its realism of the disastrous accident. (In the lobby is a display of the actual event that took place in December 1960.) Act II takes on a distinctively new feeling of different directions for everyone and an expanded generation gap between parents and children.

Eugene Lee created a clever single set that allows the short scenes to play out simply. Along the top of the stage hang symbols of various locations - a crucifix, shop signs, a stained glass church/convent window, a street light standing at the side of the stage.

The cast is adept but characterizations are only as credible as the script allows. Rispoli is his most convincing in barbaric moments,  downplaying the reasons for his frustration and resentment. More persuasive is Alyssa Bresnahan as the enduring wife and mother, who occasionally shows moments of the girl she once was, dancing with Francesca and Connie, typical teenagers with a hidden secret. Lilly Kay hints at Tina's unacknowledged promise when she lets Celia teach her to read and we can believe that she might become more than a factory worker.

Despite the play's intentions of authenticity, there is both too much and too little. It lacks convincing nuances of characterization and the text feels stuffed with archetypes. At the end, Napoli, Brooklyn did not portray much more than another dysfunctional family.

Napoli, Brooklyn

Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center
111 - West 46 St.  NYC.
Preview: June 9, 2017; Opening: June 27, 2017; Closing Sept. 3, 2017
Cast: Lilly Kay, Shirine Babb, Alyssa Bresnahan, Elise Kibler, Jordyn DiNatale, Erik Lochtefeld, and Michael Rispoli
Running time: Two hours. One intermission.
Written:  Meghan Kennedy

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
June 2017

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