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Over the River and through the Woods

My father's Uncle Tony lived with his entire extended family in Bensonhurst, a still-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. I remember being a kid down in the cigarette-smoke-filled basement, where all the cousins sat around eating canoli and catching up on family scandals. As each child grew up and married, the family, which was in the construction business, would build another small house at a haphazard angle on Uncle Tony's property. Though our side of the family only saw them for Christmas and wakes, we were always welcomed unconditionally because we met that all-important criterion: we were family.

This week my mom and I went to see Over the River and through the Woods, a new play about an Italian-American family by Joe DiPietro, the author of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. It is the story of 29 year old Nick Cristano, whose announcement that he wants to move to Seattle is tantamount to a declaration of war. To his grandparents, who have already lost Nick's sister and parents to distant cities, Nick's desire to move for professional advancement makes no sense. Why would he, they wonder, want to leave his family? Nick's grandfathers are immigrants who worked long hours at back-breaking work in order to support their families. His grandmothers raised their children and expressed affection through the food they lovingly prepared. Nick's grandparents' entire reason for being alive was to create a home for their families, and to give to their children and grandchildren all the opportunities that they had had to forego. During the course of the play, they learn, to their sorrow, that they have succeeded in this attempt to elevate their family's prospects; they have raised Nick's expectations so high that he is no longer truly one of them; he needs to move on.

The themes of the play are universal. You don't have to be Italian to wonder what we owe the people who love us, or to ask to what degree we, in the modern day, should arrange our lives to be close to our families. For the grandparents in this play, the answers are obvious. Family is the center, the heart of life. But how many of us live our lives this way today? My siblings are scattered across the globe, from Manhattan to Virginia to Germany. We email each other often, but this is hardly a substitute for weekly family meals. Even Uncle Tony's kids finally moved away.

In addition to grappling with existential questions, the play is extremely funny. The audience was cracking up throughout. In one especially funny scene, Nick tries to play Trivial Pursuit ("that game we don't understand") with his grandparents. Nick's grandparents are perfectly satisfied with vague or inaccurate answers to the game questions. It was a familiar situation taken to a hilarious extreme. However, I found most effective the play's more touching scenes. I had tears in my eyes as Nick's grandfather Frank told about why he had come to America; very moving, too, was Nick's grandmother Aida's description of the things which have given her life meaning. By the end, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Oddly enough, though there were ample references to provolone and prosciutto, I sometimes had trouble believing the characters were Italian. It's not that I wanted the cast talkin'-a like-a this-a, but it was hard to believe that these grandparents, immigrants all, had lost all traces of their accents. I didn't need to hear "That's Amore" playing in the background of every scene, but I needed a few more recognizably Italian-American touches in their home. It felt at times as though they were only pretending to be Italian and that the climax of the play might be Nunzio and Frank confessing to their grandson that they were all really WASPS. The set is beautiful, but looks more like a living room in New England than Hoboken, New Jersey. It needed some deep red curtains on the windows, and maybe a crucifix or two. There was a dearth of porcelain figurines. The only set detail which rang true for me was the etched, frosted glass window set in the front door, an attempt at grandeur in this otherwise modest home. It was not unlike the rather gaudy mural of an Italian landscape which covered one entire kitchen wall when my parents bought their first house from the Mastrogiacomo family.

As the conflicted grandson, Jim Bracchitta is attractive and funny. His delivery draws the audience into his character's experience and makes us anticipate each new anecdote eagerly. Marsha Dietlein plays Caitlin O'Hare, a woman who is fixed up with Nick in an attempt by his grandparents to tie him down. She is charming in the role and makes the audience wonder how they would behave as an outsider plopped down at one of these family dinners. As the grandparents, Val Avery, Joan Copeland, Dick Latessa and Marie Lillo are endearing and believable. The intimacy between the couples feels like the result of decades of marriage. Marie Lillo was especially convincing as Emma, Nick's paternal grandmother. I overheard the woman next to me remark in a heavy Brooklyn accent, "I sweah...she's my Ma."

The play's leitmotif is echoed again and again by Nick's grandfather Frank. "Tenga familia," he says. "I have a family." This connotes for him Manhood, Responsibility, a Raison d'Etre. Nick's choices in life underscore the shift in priorities in the younger generation. Ambitious and unfettered by family responsibilities, Nick follows a very different path than his grandparents. With this freedom comes loss, not of family, but of familial intimacy, which is not born of "quality time," but quantity of time. And, as is so often shown, we seldom recognize what we have until we lose it.

Over the River and through the Woods is playing at the John Houseman Theatre, 450 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Performances are Monday, (Tuesdays are dark), Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $45 for all seats. There are no student rush tickets available.

-- Wendy Guida