“Death is a funny thing,” says one of the characters in Dan Lauria’s “Dinner with the Boys” currently playing at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, a theatre with an impressive record for introducing new plays with the mark of success on them. This funny, tautly-written, extremely well-acted comedy is no exception.
The man who gave us the steady, enigmatic father in “The Wonder Years” — a television show that won our hearts — and in “Lombardi” an embodiment of the winningest coach in NFL history — to the avid cheers of theatre and sports fans alike — wins once again as both playwright and actor, in “Dinner with the Boys.”
Here is the recipe: take three parts excellent actor (Richard Zavaglia, Ray Abruzzo, and Dan Lauria himself), take one mob theme in which we have all been so well-schooled, take at least a dozen dishes so deliciously described that we can almost taste them, mix in laughs liberally, add wit as sharp as a kitchen knife, sprinkle with musical language refrains (you’ll see what I mean), spice it all up, add a twist, and another twist, and… you have a raucous comedy that makes a serious point about senseless violence and the value of kindness.
Here are two characters in a predicament as lonely as that of the two hobos in Waiting for Godot, caught in an ongoing exchange as situational and comical as any between Abbot and Costello. Like Vladimir and Estragon here are two guys waiting for their fate. But unlike Beckett’s play, something does happen and it keeps happening to our delight
What is theatre except the expression of character and the tracking of action in a small space? The play is confined to a kitchen as realistic as your own. When we see these two figures close up, hear their stories, and watch them interacting, we learn their differences. We observe the see-saw of every relationship, and it feels real. The play is also a tutorial in how much the perishable art of all of those great meals we’ve had in our lives, whoever cooked them, have been performances, orchestrations of reality.
Richard Zavaglia does an amazing job as Dom, the cook. We feel the passion he feels. We appreciate his deep understanding of all the egos involved. He reminds us that being out of the spotlight gives more complete perspective to the alert observer. He plays a character whose role it is not only to act, but to improvise, to season his presentation with just the right kind of intelligence. We believe in him.
Every dish needs its spice. Ray Abruzzo is the catalyst. Known for his many roles, including on the Sopranos and Mad Men, he simultaneously raises the energy and the comedy level. He is multi-faceted and exciting to watch. The play depends for its success on how he bursts on the scene and dominates the action.
Dan Lauria gives us a very sympathetic Charlie. One scene alone, with an open newspaper before him, tells us all we need to know about him and the author behind him who is also Dan Lauria. It is a mark of unusually good writing that the offstage characters – the ones we hear about but never see – who only inhabit the words of the actors before us, take on as much life as these visible actors – a double compliment to Dan Lauria.
All of this has made me very hungry.
The world premiere of DINNER WITH THE BOYS by Dan Lauria
Thursday – Sunday from September 11 through October 5, 2014
New Jersey Repertory Company 179 Broadway in Long Branch, NJ
Directed by Frank Megna
Starring Dan Lauria, Richard Zavaglia and Ray Abruzzo
The production team includes: Jessica Parks (Set Design & Props), Jill Nagle (Lighting Design), Merek Royce Press (Sound Design), Patricia E. Doherty (Costume Design), Michael Carroll (Technical Director), and Jennifer Tardibuono (Stage Manager).