by Samuel L. Leiter
The f-bombs are so frequent in Charles Messina’s A Room of My Own, an often fabulously funny autobiographical family farce-drama, that even a 10-year-old kid gets to freely fling them around like Frisbees. Other profane f-words frequently fly through the air, like those for homosexuals and passing gas, but none comes close to the one that somehow finds a way to make myocardial infarction sound foul.
It’s Christmas time in 1979—cue the disco music—and we’re in the shabby, one-room, tenement apartment (convincingly designed by Brian Dudkiewicz) of a poor Italian-American family on Greenwich Village’s Thompson Street. Peter Morelli (Johnny Tammaro), shares a sofa-bed with his 10-year-old son, Carl (Nico Bustamante), while his wife, Dotty (Joli Tribuzio), shares a cot with their teenage daughter Jeannie (Kendra Jain). Upstairs lives Dotty’s gay-bashing gay brother, Jackie (Mario Cantone). Their working-class accents sound so lifelike you’re likely to hear echoes of Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty and Rocky’s Burt Young whenever they open their traps. (Young himself was present the night I went.)
A Room of My Own is a memory play that’s presumably being written by the Adult Carl (Ralph Macchio) as we watch it. (He’s obviously the avatar of playwright Messina, who also directed.) Carl, relying on the notebook he began writing when he was a kid, walks about with a laptop, speaking to the audience, chorus-like, about what he recalls and even sometimes admonishing the characters, although the only one he actually converses with is his childhood self. Oddly enough, this device actually works and provides us with Adult Carl’s perspective on what he’s bringing back to life, including his questioning of whether or not to incorporate this or that recollection. In fact, one of the themes, is just how much responsibility the writer has to the truthfulness of his memories.
Dotty, Peter, and Jackie are loud and vulgar stereotypes but Messina sculpts them with enough honesty and wit to make them lovably believable. Their need for money is the play’s driving motivation, even inspiring Little Carl’s ambition to have a room of his own. Peter, who’s unemployed, and Dotty, who works at a bakery but depends on petty larceny to supplement her income, must pay Carl’s overdue tuition at his Catholic parochial school. Your ears will turn red when you hear how she reviles the dungaree-wearing nun who runs the school for having abandoned her “vow of poverty.” The only money in the family belongs to Peter’s wealthy sister, Jean (Liza Vann), from whom he’s estranged because he’s convinced he got shafted when she inherited their father’s real estate.
While much depends on fast and furious repartee, with numerous outrageous wisecracks, there’s a healthy dollop of physical humor, including a hilariously raunchy scene when Peter finds himself alone with Dotty for the first time in ten years. However, like Dot, another recent Christmas-time comedy about a dysfunctional family, the laughs eventually subside so pathos can hold sway. Messina, however, overplays his hand; during a lengthy scene between Dotty and Jackie, a tear or two may dribble from your eyes, but, while it underlines Dot’s ferocity in fighting for her family, the sustained seriousness is a downer.
Nearly all the performances are terrific, beginning with the adorable Nico Bustamante’s potty-mouthed Little Carl. Mario Cantone’s outspokenly raucous but painfully lonely Jackie is funny and sad, while Johnny Tammaro’s gaseous Peter couldn’t be better. Joli Tribuzio excellently combines coarseness, determination, and sensitivity as Dotty, although she might want to lighten the tone a bit, while Ralph Macchio’s Carl, the least colorful of the crew, grounds the play as its only “normal” character. The one glaring weakness is Liza Vann’s noveau riche Jean, the play’s deus ex machina, who enters dressed in mink, blue sequins, and sunglasses, and neither looks nor sounds like anyone from the Morelli background, regardless of her wealth.
Wondering if you should make room for A Room of My Own? Fuhgeddaboudit!
A Room of My Own
Abingdon Theatre Company
312 West 36th Street, NYC
Through March 13
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).