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Napoli, Brooklyn

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 27, 2017

Elise Kibler, Lilli Kay, and Jordyn DiNatale
Photo by Joan Marcus

Meghan Kennedy's immigrant family drama Napoli, Brooklyn, opening tonight at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, contains a number of emotionally-charged and dramatically explosive moments (including a startlingly literal one) that will undoubtedly set your heart thumping and your adrenaline flowing. But the play overall is suggestive of the title of Ms. Kennedy's previous outing for the Roundabout: Too Much, Too Much, Too Many. There is too much going on, too much stereotyping, and too many characters who exist solely to make a thematic point.

Napoli, Brooklyn, a co-production of the Roundabout and the Long Wharf Theatre, takes place in 1960, at a time when this country was on the cusp of emerging rights movements on behalf of women, African Americans, and gays. The play makes room at the table for all of these, although the story itself borrows its episodic form from one of those immigrant-in-America works from an earlier age, like I Remember Mama or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

You've met the play's characters in other guises before. At center are the members of the Italian Muscolino family, headed up by an overbearing and abusive father, Nic (Michael Rispoli), and his loyal wife Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan). Their three daughters, each of whom also fulfills a stock role, are Tina (Lilli Kay), a factory worker who has given up a life of her own in order to help support the family; Vita (Elise Kibler), the only one who stands up to their father and who pays a heavy price for doing so; and their teenaged sister Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), who is a lesbian, though, of course, not out to her family.

Rounding out the cast of characters are three others who also serve as representative types. There is the kind-hearted Irish butcher Albert Duffy (Erik Lochtefeld), who has long carried a torch for Luda; Duffy's daughter Connie (Juliet Brett), who is Francesca's girlfriend (the pair are planning to run away together); and Celia Jones (Shirine Babb), an African American co-worker of Tina, who becomes her one true friend.

The play unfolds in short scenes, each of which is a miniature character study. Things open on an intriguingly quirky note as we watch Luda quartering an onion, sniffing the pieces, and talking to it in Italian. It seems she is angry with God, so she will only talk to Him through her self-made saint, the onion. We also have early scenes with the three daughters, showing us their sisterly affection while introducing various plot points. We learn, for example, that only Tina and Francesca are currently living at home; Vita has been sent to live in a convent, mostly to protect her from her violent father. Separate scenes pair Tina and Celia in the factory, where their friendship starts to develop; Francesca and Connie fumblingly declaring their love for one another and hatching a plan to sneak aboard a ship and stow away to France; Luda and her erstwhile suitor, the butcher Mr. Duffy, discussing her meat purchases in his shop; and interactions between the family members and the foul-tempered Nic Muscolino.

All of these take place on a single set, designed by Eugene Lee, a tenement apartment dominated by a large crucifix hanging from the ceiling on one side, and a stained glass church window on the other, with the corners of the set being used as needed to show the butcher shop, Vita's convent room, and the playground where Francesca and Connie secretly meet.

Things move slowly for a long time, with each short scene revealing a little more about the characters, layer by layer like Luda's ubiquitous onions. Then, suddenly, at the end of Act I, there is a massive external explosion (based on an actual event that occurred at the time of the play; you might wish to join the rest of the audience members who are looking it up on their phones during the intermission). By the start of Act II, however, even this nerve-rattling dose of reality is subsumed into the symbolism that is a hallmark of the play, marking a break between the Old World that Nic and Luda and Mr. Duffy left behind, and the New World of the younger generation, who are becoming more adept at finding their way forward as Americans.

Meghan Kennedy, the playwright, clearly has constructed Napoli, Brooklyn as a means of commenting on the immigrant experience at the onset of a period of social upheaval in the U. S. that would itself explode in the next decade. The cast members, under Gordon Edelstein's direction, make the most of their roles and frequently manage to breathe authentic life into their characters. Truly, there are emotionally gripping moments powerful enough to make you want to boo the villainous father and cheer the women who are the true keepers of the flame. For some, this will be enough, but anyone looking for complex character development and a compelling plot are likely to be left feeling unsatisfied beyond the ability of a proffered plate of fried onions to fulfill.

Napoli, Brooklyn
Through September 3
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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