Review by Kathleen Campion
Buy the ticket. The Portuguese Kid has it all: idiosyncratic characters you cannot help but champion, rambunctious dialogue that leaves you occasionally breathless, and a director’s deft massage of the actors’ already polished gifts for comic timing.
The plot’s not much — Attorney Barry Dragonetti (Jason Alexander) and recent widow Atalanta Lagana (Sherry Rene Scott) set up the story in the opening scene, firing off arch one-liners that tell you most of what you need to know.
They have known each other — and the deceased — from childhood. They remember the same events but each has a personal spin. As a boy, Barry was attacked, yes, by a Portuguese kid, and Atalanta either saved him or “stole his moment.” Who they are and what they feel proceeds from that.
What’s most engaging here, is that John Patrick Shanley has written a series of pas de deux, binary battles between and among his characters that enchant even as they resonant. We, all of us, have been in some of these skirmishes.
Shanley knows about women. The most interesting pas de deux are between the mother and the actual and would be daughters-in-law. Shanley, who also directs, enlivens the screeches, the Valkyries thrust at one another with a fierce physicality. They stare one another out of the room. Sherie Rene Scott, the widow, is especially enthusiastic thrusting her trim and nimble body into the confrontations. She is a miracle to watch.
The biggest and loudest combatant comes barreling through Barry’s office door — his mother; Mrs. Dragonetti (Mary Testa) answers the phones in Barry’s office. She is a malevolent, if comic, piledriver of insult, flinging abuse at Atalanta and castrating Barry into the bargain. (I know that sounds dreadful, but she is tremendous fun.) Shanley relies on all the punishing mother and mother-in-law myths to create a true monster on the page; then Testa takes her to a new level of gleeful awfulness.
While two of the five member cast are male characters — Barry, of course, and the slithery, young gigolo, Freddie Imbrossi (Pico Alexander) — it’s a woman’s play. Atalanta runs the show. Scott plays Atalanta —named for the Greek goddess known to be fleet of foot and disinclined to marry — with a divine litheness, as she cavorts across the stage, climbing the furniture. This Atalanta has been a reluctant wife, though a less-reluctant widow, twice. She fears, at fifty, significant love will not come, and her life will, therefore, have been pointless. She tells us confessionally that she likes to be in charge — and she is, from the moment she sets foot on the stage.
The dragon, Mrs. Dragonnetti, when asked what happened to her to make her so disagreeable, replies without pause: “Men happened to me!” Among the harshest things she says to Atalanta is – “…don’t kid yourself; you are me!” The third woman is Patty Dragonetti (Aimee Carrero), Barry’s too-young wife whom he captured on the rebound. She waits for a man to define her.
The two fifty-somethings, Barry and Atalanta, are involved with the two “kids” but actually circling one another…and yes, of course, you see it coming. The re-pairing is played mostly for laughs, except perhaps for some unexpected pathos from Barry. Alexander makes him, just briefly, vulnerable and therefore compelling. Briefly, he banishes George Constanza, who walked into the theater with most of the audience. (Of course, Alexander’s history on a Broadway stage predates his visits to Monk’s Cafe. Among other credits he was Joe in Merrily We Roll Along, a short-lived and under-appreciated Sondheim musical of 1981.)
In The Portuguese Kid, Alexander serves up his character’s struggle: Barry wants to be a man, but he is stuck with this tenderness inside.
It’s a funny play. Wet your panties funny? No, much better…right from the get go, you laugh and you remain tickled, in the mood to keep laughing…through all 100 minutes.
The Portuguese Kid – Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.
WITH: Jason Alexander (Barry Dragonetti), Sherie Rene Scott (Atalanta Lagana), Mary Testa (Mrs. Dragonetti), Pico Alexander (Freddie Imbrossi), and Aimee Carrero (Patty Dragonetti).
Designed by John Lee Beatty; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; original music and sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan. Extended through December 3. Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission.