Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 25, 2007
Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale, written by Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Set design by James Noone. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Original music and sound design by John Gromada.
Granted, Chazz Palminteri's one-man memoir is set in a very different time (the early 60s), giving one no necessary cause to believe that racketeering, murder, and racism are still plagues on the streets of his cherished childhood haunt. Yet so effectively does he depict the dangers of growing up in that mob-suffused neighborhood that the grain of uncertain fear lingers in your mind long after the 90-minute show has concluded. If only everything else in A Bronx Tale were as vivid.
The only other thing that shines through either the script or this production, which has been ably but unremarkably directed by Jerry Zaks, is Palminteri's palpable affection for the men and women that made growing up on the edge of the underworld such a profound experience. Chief among them is Sonny, the area's boss of bosses, who holds court from the local watering hole and exerts a gentle stranglehold over everyone, and who mentored Palminteri from age nine to age 17. From the earliest moments, when the young Palminteri (Cologio is his given name) rescues Sonny from a hovering assault charge, the show documents much of the Cold War between Palminteri's working-class father and the work-'em-over Sonny as they vie for control over the still-impressionable Cologio.
Though a bastion of flavorful personalities - including terminal loser Eddie Mush, breathless blubberpot Jojo, the aptly named Crazy Mario (with his own addle-brained way of testing female devotion) - make momentarily colorful appearances, it's only when Palminteri sticks to the story of the seven years he spent learning at Sonny's heel that he conveys a joy electric enough to jolt you to the edge of your seat. The rest of the time, slumping back is perfectly appropriate.
This is not, strictly speaking, a surprise. Palminteri is best-known for his film work, in which he's played a series of hard-boiled Italian-Americans differentiated by little more than circumstance. Yet whether he's playing a hit man with a playwriting fixation in Bullets Over Broadway or is occupying the other side of the law as criminal mastermind Keyser Soze's nemesis in The Usual Suspects, he always cuts a firmly imposing, if also oddly generic, figure. Palminteri's performances tend to inspire thoughts of authority, not versatility.
With only moderate modifications of voice and even subtler changes of physicality, Palminteri displays only two modes of characterization regardless of which of the dozen or so characters he's ostensibly embodying: himself as stand-up comic or himself stand-up tragedian. The former is in charge in the earliest scenes, which are full of quick-hit portrayals more appropriate for a semi-stereotypical sitcom than a passionate slice of personal life. As the show progresses, his reminiscences gradually take on a heaviness that too readily presages the climactic outcome (which is surprising only for the ineffective mock-cinematic way in which it's presented, complete with slow-motion).
As I didn't see A Bronx Tale the first time around, I can't say that this sameness has always been a problem, or if it's become more pronounced as Palminteri has settled into his film persona. But very little of the obvious love for the setting or its quirky inhabitants comes through in Palminteri's performance as it exists now, which would be nearly perfect if he could shift more of that debilitating weight to the opening and more of the extraneous lightness to the finale.
There's one exception - and it's not an inconsiderable one. Palminteri's fondness for Sonny inspires in you an awe and wonder likely quite similar to what he himself experienced once upon a time. He makes it easy to understand why he insisted on playing the role in the 1993 film adaptation of A Bronx Tale (opposite Robert De Niro, who also directed, as his father): The blend of viciousness and generosity is a rich one, offering plenty of opportunities for exploring the kind of emotional and dramatic contradictions that actors, by their nature, tend to crave. On that score, Palminteri doesn't miss a trick - he succeeds at making Sonny both sympathetic and corrosive, as much of a force for good as a force for evil, while never losing track of the sense of humor that likely helped him become a proto-Godfather in the first place.
Even so, there are times it seems that Palminteri doesn't entirely respect Sonny's uniqueness - he even ends the evening downplaying his influence, and that of so much in his early life: "You could ask anybody from my neighborhood and they'll tell you, this is just another Bronx tale." If anyone shouldn't believe that, it's Palminteri - but too much of this A Bronx Tale feels like that's exactly what he's trying to prove.