The interaction between Hilary (Alma Cuervo) and Giuseppe (Danny Aiello) thrills not merely because these are two disparate, lonely people accidentally bonding on America’s darkest day, but also because Charlotte equates a quintessential American tragedy with the quintessential European tragedy: the extermination of Jews during World War II. Giuseppe, we soon learn, survived only because of his father — a man who, out of love for his decrepit (and stubborn) mother, never made it out of a crumbling Italy himself. With his “New World” in cinders around him, Giuseppe is driven to consider whether the ideals on which he was raised, and which he’s tried to pass on to his (unreceptive) daughter, are in line with the existence that’s been irrevocably altered for the second time in his 70-something years.
Everything about Giuseppe is powerful: his projection of dead people’s personalities onto the shoes they’ve left behind, his initial resistance to Hilary’s overtures of an emotionally expressive humanity when all he wants to do is keep his feelings under wrap, the creeping realization that he can no longer merely shut out evil by barricading himself indoors and cranking up the volume on his favorite Puccini operas. Charlotte has masterfully crafted his life to be one of keystone contractions, all on the brink of catastrophic collapse. Director Antony Marsellis ratchets up the tension, too, treating Giuseppe’s shop (the quaint, claustrophobic, and highly appropriate design of Ray Klausen) as an oasis against the smoldering metropolis outside that mirrors exactly its owner’s worldview.
Aiello is ideal, his crusty brusqueness only occasionally separating to reveal a reluctant softness, and invisible yet vast stores of energy that allow Giuseppe to register as a man who for decades has been fueled more by potentially misguided survival instinct than by common sense. When he rages against the Earth’s destructive impulses, you want to recoil from the heat; when his heart breaks over those he’s literally or figuratively lost, you have to work to hold your own together. Cuervo conveys her own complex sense of aimlessness, but showing it as Giuseppe refuses to. The two have a taut, engaging chemistry, but Aiello ultimately overwhelms her through force of Giuseppe’s will — and as the characters’ time together crashes to a close, you seem to be watching Aiello give a legitimately Great Performance: elevating a surprising, understated role in an assuming play to a position of transcendent beauty.
Unfortunately, most of this is spoiled by a second act that transforms Giuseppe’s internal struggles into external ones, and ejects the subtlety and subtext that make everything that comes before intermission so compelling. For long stretches early in the show, you can’t bear the thought of Act One ending; but as Aiello spends much of his later scenes screaming in Italian at the disembodied voice of his father (Michael Twaine), rambling about the significance of dreams with a newcomer customer (Lucy DeVito), and launching penny loafers, pumps, and slingbacks at every conceivable surface in fierce repudiation of everything he previously professed to believe, you can barely wait for lights to go down for the final time.
The Shoemaker originally premiered last year in a one-act format, and Aiello has said in interviews that he encouraged Charlotte to expand the play to make it a more viable commercial prospect. But Charlotte hasn’t really expanded it; she’s made it longer, by tacking on a virulent coda of literalism that not only doesn’t tell you anything you need to know, but doesn’t make a convincing case for its own existence. As I didn’t see the initial version, I can’t articulate all the changes. But as presented here, the first act is completely self-contained, drawing both Giuseppe and Hilary from uncertainty to positions of more concrete understandings of the universe and their places in it; and the second spends its time answering questions that have already been addressed, highlighting instances of hope and hopelessness that were already evident, and providing yawn-eliciting specificity to situations that earlier thrived on ambiguity.
Truly building up a short play involves reconsidering every aspect of it, examining how and why certain things function and what more can be added without disrupting what’s already there. Adding more pages to the script is just, well, adding more pages. When Giuseppe and Hilary are telling you (or sometimes, avoiding telling you) everything you need to know about them and the individual hells they’re both trudging through, The Shoemaker is bursting with soul. But when it settles for being angry and obvious, Charlotte’s sparkling drama quickly becomes pedestrian.