Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
Sometimes, especially at this time of year, it is hard to believe I ever write about anything but the theatre, but I actually spend a great deal of time doing other types of writing, much of it promotional – ad copy, press releases, etc. I also receive a lot of promotional writing, and because of my experience with writing in that genre, I actually pay attention to it.
The Theater Barn press release for their production of Tom Dulack’s Breaking Legs promised me “outrageous laughs” in a play where “the worlds of the Mafia and the theater clash hilariously.” I was assured that “in this madcap situation, murder and menace are served up with plenty of pasta and laughter.”
Okay, I like a funny mobster as much as the next person, and I have seen John Noble, cast here as Godfather-figure Mike Francisco, play a very funny gangster-type before. John Philip Cromie, who plays mobster Lou Graziano, has made me laugh heartily in previous Theater Barn productions. I was ready for doors to slam and machine guns to turn up in all the wrong places. This would be fun.
But in fact I was the victim of false advertising. Dulack’s play is not outrageous, hilarious, or madcap. Or at least it isn’t in this production under Michael Marotta’s direction. It is actually quite thoughtful with fully fleshed out characters with whom you are asked to sympathize. Which is fine, but I was expecting a farce
Frankly, I could not locate the joke. Was the joke about Italians? Mobsters? College professors? The theatre? All of the above? None of the above? This was harder than those SAT comprehension questions.
So I set about to locate the problem. Marotta has assembled a fine cast of able actors, but one of them, Brian Allard, is terribly miscast. In the course of the play, which takes place in the back room of an Italian restaurant owned by the Graziano family and run by the attractive and unmarried Angie (Lisa Margolin), we meet Terence O’Keefe (Allard), Angie’s former college professor who is seeking financial backing for a play he has written. Angie is closer to thirty than she would like to admit, in fact she’s 28. And everyone, including Terence, says he’s too old for her. We learn that he has been married for 13 years and teaching at the college for 25. Assuming that he needed at least a Master’s degree in order to start teaching, that would make Terence around 50, indeed old enough to be Angie’s father. But Allard looks about 35 at the outside, and is therefore WAY too young to be playing Terence. If Dulack’s joke is about middle-aged college professors, this bit of casting defeats it immediately.
If the joke is about mobsters then it is pretty thin stuff. I found the three Mafiosos – Lou (Cromie), Mike (Noble), and Tino (Aaron S. Holbritter) – to be very average people, which I am sure mobsters actually are in real life (no, I’ve never watched “The Sopranos” but I know that that was the premise on which that show was founded). But if Terence couldn’t tell that they were mobsters from the git-go then he is one of the dumbest college professors on the planet (maybe that was the joke?)
Cromie plays Lou absolutely straight, as Holbritter does Tino, while Noble presents Mike as quite a broad caricature of an old-time Mafia boss. In other words Noble is playing for laughs and Cromie and Holbritter are playing for character. I enjoyed all three men’s performances individually (especially Holbritter’s Tino when he suddenly burst into “Tomorrow” from “Annie”), but they didn’t gel.
The real bright spot of this production is Margolin’s Angie who manages to be smart, funny, tough, and tender all at once. She really is quite a catch and it is no surprise that Terence falls for her (his “13-year marriage” conveniently evaporates in the second act) although it is never clear what makes him willing to marry into a family whose line of business he finds so distasteful.
Lu Holden has designed some wonderful tacky costumes for Angie that show off Margolin’s long and lovely legs. And as always Abe Phelps has built a handsome realistic set. I did enjoy Dulack’s joke about Angie hating plays that take place all in one room, which this one does, but it really does look like the backroom of an Italian restaurant somewhere in New England. I could smell the marinara sauce!
I really don’t believe that the joke could have been about the theatre because, while I am not a member of the mob, an Italian, or a college professor, I do know something about the theatre and there was no central joke or theme on that topic that I could discern.
The jokes I did get were the ethnic ones about Italian family dynamics and the role food plays in them. Despite the play taking place in 1986 Lou has very old-fashioned, old-country views about family, and especially about the women in his. Luckily Angie is smart enough to know how to use his narrow views to her own advantage.
I would be interested to see this play again sometime, knowing from the outset that it was not a farce, and hopefully seeing a more appropriate actor in the role of Terence. I think that Dulack intended Terence to be much more set in his ways and uptight than Marotta and Allard have presented him, just as I think he intended Mike, Lou, and Tino to be more menacing and cartoonish than the very realistic and natural treatment they get here. Don’t get me wrong, this is a pleasant and professional production, but I know that the play I saw wasn’t the show that was advertised, and I don’t think it was the one the playwright wrote either.
Breaking Legs runs through June 24 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007