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A Room of My Own

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mario Cantone, Nico Bustamante, Ralph Macchio, Joli Tribuzio,
Johnny Tammaro, and Kendra Jain
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Is the past supposed to neat and tidy, or is it—regardless of its state—merely supposed to explain where we are today? For Carl Morelli, the meddling writer at the center of Charles Messina's atom-thin new show A Room of My Own at the Abington Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre, this isn't just a philosophical quandary, it's an all-consuming existential dilemma.

Carl, now squarely in adulthood and played by Ralph Macchio (of Karate Kid and My Cousin Vinnie fame), has been keeping in-depth notes about his life ever since he was a kid, and now that he's a playwright, he wants to put them to use. So he's crafted this play to not just present his unapologetically Italian-American family and his hardscrabble Greenwich Village upbringing, but also to correct it ("I'm gonna fix the truth") and make it more palatable, and ostensibly more entertaining, than it actually was.

As such, while we meet his mother Dotty (Joli Tribuzio), father Peter (Johnny Tammaro), old sister Jeannie (Kendra Jain), maternal uncle Jackie (Mario Cantone), and, of course, the 10-year-old version of himself (Nico Bustamante), Carl is forever trying to make it pass dramatic muster. He might complain about a character entering at the wrong time, or disliking their subject of conversation, but considering that none of his "creations" really bothers listening to him—to say nothing of obeying him—it quickly becomes clear they'd rather be in charge of telling their own story.

Which is... what, exactly? Messina seems to be serving up a slice of life centered on a couple of days leading up to Christmas in 1979, but there's barely a plot; for that matter, there are barely any events. We see the stress of Johnny trying to provide for his family in their cramped studio apartment (the sauced-up-shabby work of scenic designer Brian Dudkiewicz). We see Dotty trying to keep him in line. We see everyone complaining about money. We see (peripherally) Jackie trying to live as a gay man in an ethnic and religious community that didn't accept it. And we see, much later, stress between Johnny and his now-rich sister, Jean (Liza Vann), about long-ago slights.

What we don't see is the vital connecting tissue; it's more a series of skits—Johnny makes meatballs, Dotty plots how she's going to make money, Carl catches Jeannie and Jackie disco dancing, everyone opens their presents—than an actual play. Even the Johnny-Jean conflict, which anchors the last third of the 95-minute evening, feels flimsy and obligatory, a major focus of attention despite the fact that it's both confusing (how could it have been a major turning point in Carl's life when he wasn't there to know it was happening?) and, judging by its eventual outcome, meaningless to his life as an adult.

Things like this could matter less if the characters and their world were more vivid, but they're a collection of stock characters with stock accents, and don't offer much beyond "hard-working dad," "persevering mother," "clever, foul-mouthed kid," and so on. This doesn't leave the actors much room for creativity, and most of their performances, if effective within this limited sphere, don't exactly transport you. The exceptions are Macchio, whose natural likability nudges you toward siding with Carl's manipulative viewpoint, and Cantone, who injects Jackie with a viciously funny energy that's appealing, even if it isn't much different from what he uses in most other shows.

Messina, who has also directed with adequate skill, may have wanted to show that the adult Carl's influences are only skin deep, that he's as fueled by clich├ęs as he is his memories of growing up. Or that, by having to reduce a transformative week into one-dimensional silliness, he's wrong in his fundamental belief that every story is worth telling. But without more clues to suggest Messina had these (slightly) deeper goals in mind, A Room of My Own comes across as just as aimless as it does derivative. Even the framing device is familiar and nonsensical: Why, for example, do we see Carl writing the script on a laptop one minute, complaining about the set the next, and dropping in a lighting joke later? Where and why are we?

Carl is trying to answer that same question, and because it's one we all grapple with at one time or another, on some level we want him to succeed. But even more, we want his family to come to life and justify the effort Carl is putting into "fixing" them. To him, they're more than stereotypes. As presented to us, however, they're not, and that makes it nearly impossible to love them—and A Room of My Own—as much as Carl and Messina so desperately want us to.

A Room of My Own
Through March 13
June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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