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The Portuguese Kid

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 24, 2017

Pico Alexander, Aimee Carrero, Mary Testa, Jason Alexander,
and Sherie Rene Scott
Photo by Richard Termine

Badda bing, badda boom! That, in a nutshell, is what you get with playwright John Patrick Shanley's latest work, The Portuguese Kid, a joke-filled but decidedly saggy sex comedy that opened tonight in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center's Stage I.

The good news first. That would be Mary Testa as Mrs. Dragonetti, a (what else?) dragon of a mother who looks a bit like former First Lady Barbara Bush (whom Ms. Testa has portrayed before) and charges around the stage roaring like an unfettered Ethel Merman. She is also the only one who is able to capture the crazy spirit and exquisite comic timing needed to pull off the steady stream of one-liners that serve as the dialog for large chunks of the play. It's not so much what she says; it's how she says it, with that nobody-better-mess-with-me tone that makes you perk up each time she appears and slump a little whenever she exits.

No one else comes close. Not Jason Alexander, who plays her son Barry, a meh lawyer and a schlub of a man who undoubtedly will remind you of the actor's best-known character, George Costanza from Seinfeld. And not Sherie Rene Scott, who plays Atalanta Lagana, a wealthy serial widow who has long had the hots for Barry (lots of jokes about calling out his name during sex, no matter whom she is with).

A sex comedy doesn't need much of a plot, but it does need something to hang its tale on (even the play's title is just another excuse for a running gag). The thread by which the storyline hangs kicks in when Atalanta shows up at Barry's office, wanting him to settle the estate of her latest late husband. None of that truly matters, however. What does matter is the situation (as in "situation comedy"). Barry is married to a much younger woman, Patty (Aimee Carrero), and the "grieving widow" Atalanta has taken up with a boy toy, Freddie (Pico Alexander), who is Patty's ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, there is Mrs. Dragonetti who lives with her son and daughter-in-law, and whose raison d'ĂȘtre is to insert her sharp tongue into everyone else's business.

As the cast members, wearing William Ivey Long's snazzy costumes, cavort around John Lee Beatty's lovely and extensive set (Barry's office and home, and Atalanta's upscale house), it won't take you five minutes to figure out who will end up with whom. It's basically the stuff of classic sex farce. But John Patrick Shanley's considerable strengths as a playwright do not include a great facility for the construction of farce. Instead, he relies on punch line after punch line after punch line. It's as though he had been collecting jokes on index cards for years and has tried to wrap the play around them all. Certainly, some lines will make you laugh, especially when they come out of Mary Testa's mouth. But there are also many whose sell-by date expired long ago, including references to occupied France, Spartacus, Darth Vader, and Goldfinger. Even a string of forced Donald Trump jokes seem stale.

Occasionally there are suggestions that both Atalanta and Barry long for something more than the lives they have fallen into, what Barry refers to as "the indignity of survival." Perhaps a better director might have been able to help Mr. Shanley build on those moments of self-reflection and trim away the parts that drag the play down. Unfortunately, the director and the playwright are one and the same, and they seem to have agreed on everything.

The Portuguese Kid
Through November 26
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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