Review by Kathleen CampionBe warned. This is a play about women.
It is the tale of women in an immigrant family set in 1960. The parents came from Italy; their three daughters are Brooklyn-born. The father, who is invisible in the outside world, is a brute in the household,
Luda Muscolino (Alyssa Bresnahan) is the wise woman at the center of the family and the play. Playwright Meghan Kennedy writes enough idiosyncrasies into Luda to distract us from the idealized I Remember Mama motiff. As the play opens, for example, Luda is talking to an onion. She is too angry about her husband’s assault on their daughter to talk with God. She is written as an optimist in denial about the family she leads. Napoli, Brooklyn has the palpable sense of someone’s actual family story.
“Three daughters” offer up all the possibilities of Lear. But the defining of character is more feudal than Shakespearian, with the daughters tasked as feudal sons might have been. The oldest, Vita (Elise Kibler), closest to the mother, learns her recipes and her Italian. Vita is the prize, the beauty to be married off, but is literally sent to a nunnery to wait out her father’s wrath. The second girl, Tina (Lilli Kay), seen to lack both beauty and wit, becomes the workhorse in a dead-end factory job. It is her job to take care of everyone. The youngest, “‘Cesca” (Jordyn DiNatale), is the changeling; what might she be?
Michael Rispoli (Nic Muscolino) plays the villain of the piece; he is the abusive father and husband. Yes, first reference for most in the audience is Rispole’s recurring role as Jackie Aprile of the Sopranos. Rispoli has made a career playing blue-collar Italian bad guys. Here he is a brute, nursing his wounds of the immigrant’s anonymity, his lack of sons, his inadequacy.
The cataclysm that shocks the audience into intermission is stunning. I won’t spoil if for you but will say as the audience recovered, there was a rush to Google the horrific event that shook the room and changes everything. It leaves you craving act 2.
Kudos to director Gordon Edelstein, designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Fitz Patton on generating this shocking event. It is the second time this season — the other being the moment armed soldiers in Julius Caesar fired into the audience — that I actually felt endangered. I didn’t like it, but I’d never felt it before in a theater.
As is nearly a given in this jewel of a performance space, every centimeter of the modest square footage of the stage does at least double and triple duty. Lighted candles downstage right pull the eye while an entire Christmas Eve feast of the Seven Fishes — meal, crockery, chairs, wine bottles are vamoosed! A very populated bed empties and fills artlessly. The kitchen trolley is a butcher shop; a box of tiles a factory. It’s brilliant and seamless.
Luda delivers the last speech — essentially a soliloquy — with an exquisite tenderness speaking of her child, her daughter, and all daughters, all women. I was moved.
That said, when the curtain falls, there is something missing . It’s not so much that you long for act 3 as that there is still a revolver on the mantle that no one has fired, and so, while there is much substance here, one is hungry for more substantial resolution. It is a good pasta meal, but it is not the Seven Fishes.
Napoli, Brooklyn – by Meghan Kennedy; directed by Gordon Edelstein.
WITH: Alyssa Bresnahan (Luda Muscolino), Jordyn DiNatale (Frencesca Muscolino), Lilli Kay (Tina Muscolino), Elise Kobler (Vita Muscolino), Juliet Brett (Connie Duffy), Erik Lochtefeld (Albert Duffy), Shirine Babb (Celia Jones), Michael Rispoli (Nic Muscolino).
Designed by Eugene Lee; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Fitz Patton; dialect coach Stephen Gabis; Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company. At Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W 46th Street, Manhattan. Through July 30. Running time: two hours with one intermission.