STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Italian Lesson

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Italian Lesson I hate to admit, but I will.

I hate to admit, but I will.

I've always been vaguely uncomfortable about my Italian-American background.

I've been haunted by the likes of Mussolini, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Frank "The Chin" Gigante, and Tony "Big Tuna" Accarda. Then there's "Crazy Joe" Gallo -- not to be confused with either Joe ("Keep patting your enemy on the back until a small bullet hole appears between your fingers") Bonanno, or Joe ("You can imagine my embarrassment when I killed the wrong guy") Valachi. And let's not forget Jerry Vale, who murdered many a song.

Then there are the unfortunate idioms. Italian Stallion. Life's too short not to be Italian. Goomba. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Yo. Fageddabout it.

Forget about it, indeed. I know, I know. There are all those Popes, and all that art in Florence and Rome. Luigi Pirandello, whose Right You Are, If You Think You Are I like as much as his Six Characters in Search of an Author. Michelangelo, Mastroianni, Marconi, and Meiucci, whom some say really invented the telephone.

Nevertheless, none of them was ever much solace because of what really bothered me about being Italian-American: The stubborn reliance on family solidarity.

My father had four siblings. My mother had eight. That made for a lot of uncles and aunts with a myriad of opinions on who I was, and what they expected me to be. And because there was barely a high school graduate in the bunch, I spent quite a bit of time examining my family and asking myself, "How could I have come from these people?"

This is the very question 29-year-old Nick Cristano asks in Joe DiPietro's comedy, Over the River and through the Woods, now at the John Houseman Theatre for what I hope will be a long, long run.

Nick's parents have moved to Florida because their health demanded it, but his grandparents remained in Hoboken. Nick has dinner with them each Sunday, out of habit, duty, and, not at all incidentally, out of genuine love and affection, too.

But Nick doesn't expect to be visiting as often. He's been offered a promotion in Seattle -- and he's inclined to take it. As he says to us, "The lure of a new life is as seductive as any lover."

I understood, from that time 21 years ago when I made the decision to move from Boston to New York -- to the consternation of those many aunts, uncles, cousins, and, of course, my mother. For, of my 13 cousins, 11 have wound up living a stone's throw from their parents. Aside from me, only Diane moved to another state, and not as far away as I. The family approved of her moving, though, because her husband's job demanded it. I, though, had "no reason" to move to New York, other than I was stagestruck and wanted to write either for the theatre or about it. That didn't make much sense to a family that rarely-if-ever even went to the movies.

But, as Nick asks, "How much do you owe those who care for you?" His grandparents, of course, feel quite a bit, and will do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to keep him in the neighborhood.

DiPietro makes a good case for Nick's leaving this over-protective quartet. They must always have the last word. They cry in alarm when they hear he's in therapy. They're always telling embarrassing stories about what he did as a baby. They feel they have the right and privilege to reach up to his forehead, with a "Fix your hair nice."

But here's the thing: Though DiPietro wasn't totally sentimental. ("The best thing about moving to California is that you can stay in the country and still be 3,000 miles away from your family"), he portrayed it all so lovingly, with far more affection than I've ever been able to muster.

So, when Nick turned down the umpteenth offer from his grandmother to eat a little something and she cried, "You're breaking my heart," I didn't come out with my usual snarl and "Look! She's guilting him into it!" Somehow, DiPietro handled it so I saw it as an act of generosity and concern. And, when the grandparents turned down his gift of a VCR ("You spend too much on us."), I suddenly had a different and more understanding take from the one a few Christmases back when my mother turned down my gift of a VCR.

Over the River and Through the Woods must be seen by all Italian Americans, whether or not they share my suffering. I know they'll love Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman's set decoration, too. On the TV console are beloved framed pictures of family members, while on the walls are framed pictures of Catholic saints. There's the dining room table, covered with a white lace tablecloth, which in turn was covered with a pane of glass. (I'm glad the designers avoided the too-easy cliche of the plastic-covered sofa. My mother never plastic on her sofa. On her lamps, yes, but on her sofa, no.)

I'm not the only one who admires Over the River and through the Woods. In the two times I've now visited the play, I've heard people laughing loudly at the jokes, then, in the more serious moment, take on that special type of quietness that proves they're listening because they care.

After that, they gave out with genuine tears. Plenty of them. Maybe I heard a few more sniffles at Wit, but that's expected of a play that deals with cancer and death. DiPietro, though, makes you care so much for these four grandparents who don't want to see their family die that you're rooting for them to get their wish of keeping Nick nice and close. Of course, you also want Nicky to get what he wants. That's good playwriting.

How I wish Joe DiPietro had written my going-away speech to my family members. With him on the job, they would have understood much better. Joe DiPietro has certainly made up for Crazy Joe Gallo, Joe Bonanno, and Joe Valachi, and has genuinely inspired me to be a more appreciative Italian-American, and a better family member.
Grazie.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You can E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com