Before it was Napoli, Brooklyn, Meghan Kennedy’s play—currently running Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company through August 27—was actually called Talk to Me Of Love. “That was a direct translation of a song that’s in the play called ‘Parlami d’Amore,’ and it’s a Mario Lanza song,” says Kennedy. “Ultimately, we were trying to get something in the title that pondered a feeling and a place.”
More than the title alone, Kennedy’s play is a portrait of the hybrid inherent in the 1960s immigrant experience, a mix of the aura of Italy and the grounding of Brooklyn. Here, Kennedy takes us through her careful balance of ingredients—specified in her writing—she used to craft a vivid world that spills off the stage.
The smell of Italian home cooking:
Unaware Waitress fills Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the aroma of fresh-baked pie, Kennedy also chose to fold scent into her stage direction as inspired by her mother’s kitchen. “About half an hour before curtain, we start cooking onions on the stage. It’s a big theatre, but we were sort of hoping that some of the smell would drift out into the audience, so when you get in there, you’re already in Luda’s kitchen. That was very important to me. The food that’s cooked onstage is not complicated food. We use rice, we use things that are easy and plain for the actors, but it was important at least to be heating things up and just generating sense and warmth. That was important to me because food is such an important part of the Italian culture.”
The music of Napoli:
Parlami d’Amore may have been replaced as a show title, but the song’s use in the script was a launchpad (and sticking point) for Kennedy. “It is a straight up love song and there's a romance to it that I think goes along with the play and the American dream of the play,” she says. “I started with Mario Lanza because my mother was such a generous source about talking about the music they would play in their household growing up. Singers like Mario Lanza and even Perry Como; those guys from that time that were always played on the radio. I was pretty careful in picking music of that sort. It was [director] Gordon Edelstein who chose Sinatra for Christmas time, which I thought was a brilliant choice because it's so recognizable and so cozy. We also used a little bit of Neapolitan music for the transition music. That was also Gordon. Gordon is an incredible listener. He listens to every sort of music there is. There's so much happening in this play. It moves quickly. We didn't want to use too much music, but we were very deliberate about the music we did.”
The mother tongue:
The immigrant experience takes on different forms for Luda and Nick, who were born in Napoli, versus their daughters who are first-generation Americans—and their accents needed to reflect the degrees of distance from that homeland. “We had the most incredible dialect coach; Stephen Gabis is a genius,” raves Kennedy. “It is written into the script, Alyssa [Bresnahan], who plays Luda, is a magician with accents. She was able to capture the coming together of American and Italian. In the script, it's indicated either strong Italian accent, slight Italian accent, slight Irish accent. For the girls: the oldest sister, Tina, has a bit of a thicker accent because she didn't have as much education. The other girls are sort of going out into the world a little bit more. I tried to give, hopefully, an accurate representation of the mixture that existed then within those immigrant communities.”
The final piece relied on authentic objects, signage, and fabrics from the time. The design team brought Kennedy’s stage directions to life, creating a full Brooklyn neighborhood—Luda’s kitchen, the butcher shop, the church, the local tile factory, and more—in the Off-Broadway space. “Eugene Lee was the designer, and he is a mad scientist genius. He understood the play from moment one,” credits Kennedy. “We had to sort of learn to speak the same language because it's a very spare play, and there's not a lot of descriptors to go on. We wanted to get the feel of a place without building six different sets. Eugene and [costume designer] Jane [Greenwood], they lived through that time. Jane went out and got vintage clothing that people actually wore. Having them to build this world with was extremely helpful because it made it more authentic.”
For more information about Napoli, Brooklyn or to purchase tickets, visit RoundaboutTheatre.org.