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In Spite of Myself

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It takes a lot of guts to write a one-person play about yourself and then not make yourself the main character, but that's exactly what Antoinette LaVecchia has done with her new show In Spite of Myself at Urban Stages.

The main character is really LaVecchia's mother, something that's obvious from the moment the lights first come up on LaVecchia portraying her mother giving birth to her. While this was the first time that LaVecchia's mother would have a direct influence on her life outside the womb, it certainly wasn't the last, and that's what LaVecchia spends most of the 60-minute show demonstrating.

She spends much of that time showing the strength of the bond (and love) between the two, despite the conflicts - between the generations, between old-world Italy and modern America, between idealism and reality, and so on - that tend to get in the way. LaVecchia (the character and the actress) responds by creating a play to work out her conflicted feelings, but it's the show's subtlest yet most successful joke that her mother takes as much control of this as she does anything else.

And it's when LaVecchia turns the stage over to her mother, or at least performs scenes with her, that the show's most endearing characterizations and comedy occur. There are a number of sharply performed phone calls between the two that effectively set up the boundaries of their relationship, and LaVecchia's mother even gets to take the stage during an extended sequence in which she sings the blues of a woman who has lost control of her daughter, husband, and life, but finds a way to make it through the way all great Italian women must.

But when LaVecchia turns her quirkily observant eye toward herself, she tends to find subjects less worthy of interest or prolonged observation. There's one hilarious early sequence in which she adopts an exaggerated persona to teach a college course on the best way to be a good Italian daughter, but some of her other constructions - a demon representing her feelings when belittled by her mother, her animated (and singing) genitalia, or an Italian film musical clip - frequently provide too little entertainment for their length. The huge laughs she finds in the show's first ten minutes are never really built upon.

Nor is her own character, really. We learn little about LaVecchia beyond her recent divorce, move to a new apartment, and her aspiring theatre career. Meanwhile, her mother becomes so sympathetic by the end of the play that In Spite of Myself shifts almost entirely to her point of view, allowing us to see a (somewhat fictionalized) account of how she met her husband (the stereotypical Latin lover type) and the resolution to one of the play's dramatic throughlines of curtains LaVecchia simply does not want her mother to make.

The show was directed by Jesse Berger, and fine accents from Andy Hall's abstract set, Luca Mosca's straightforward costumes, and Josh Epstein's creative lighting keep the show focused on LaVecchia, though one can't help but wonder why she did not do the same. As enlightening and interesting as it is to learn about LaVecchia's mother in In Spite of Myself, learning more about the woman who introduced us to her would only help us understand them both better.

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In Spite of Myself
Through September 27
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission
Urban Stages Theater, 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix at 212.206.1515