Review: “Napoli, Brooklyn” – World Premiere at Long Wharf Theatre

Noah Golden

OnStage Connecticut Critic

Meghan Kennedy’s family drama “Napoli, Brooklyn” starts with a headstrong Italian mama (the fabulous Alyssa Bresnahan) chopping onions and climaxes during the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Along the way there are plates of pasta, roasted meat, salad, loaves of crusty bread and, of course, more than a few glasses of red wine. The preparation and consumption of delicious food is a cultural through-line in Ms. Kennedy’s play; an important expression of both familial love and the old-world know-how passed down from one generation to the next. But despite all the culinary decadence on display, I left “Napoli” hungry for something a little more gastronomically complex. While the play features strong performances and beautiful direction from Gordon Edelstein, it left the nagging aftertaste that this particular marinara sauce hadn’t simmered quite long enough.

Kennedy’s emotionally-charged but uneven work, which is making its world premiere at Long Wharf before transferring to the Roundabout Theater off-Broadway, has the tone of a narratorless memory play. The program reveals that the work was inspired by true events that happened to the playwright’s Italian-American mother during her Brooklyn childhood in 1960. This isn’t surprising as “Napoli” has a nostalgia to it, a longing to reach backwards in time to try and understand the present.

In the first act, we meet various members of the Muscolino family. Luda immigrated from Italy as a teenager with her husband Nic (Jason Kolotouros), a stern traditionalist with a hair-trigger temper. Oldest daughter Vita (a plucky Carolyn Braver) is reluctantly confined to a convent after a violent altercation with her dad while Tina (Christina Pumariega) toils away at a packing box factory. Only the youngest child, 16-year-old Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), seems to have a glimmer of hope in her life. She goes to school and has the warm companionship of Connie (Ryann Shane), a neighborhood girl whose dad (Graham Winton) is the local butcher. The relationship between Francesca and Connie, both innocent and amorous, is the most fascinating and fleshed out part of “Napoli” in large part due to the magnetic, assured performance by DiNatale. Rounding out the cast is Shirine Babb as Tina’s kindly co-worker Celie who dreams of life beyond assembling cardboard boxes.

For forty-five minutes or so, “Napoli” unfolds slowly with short scenes that flip between each character; Vita recounts her frustration about living with stuffy nuns via letters sent to her sisters, Francesca and Connie’s friendship blooms into romance, Celie helps Tina break out of her gruff shell. But then, without warning, the Muscolinos are blindsided by a shocking, violent accident; an act of God (or an ambitious playwright) that changes the course of the play and makes each character look anew at their life.

There are many things to admire about “Napoli, Brooklyn.” The uniformly convincing cast, Eugene Lee’s spread-out apartment set and the lyrical way Edelstein uses the Muscolino’s furniture to transform the stage into different locations around the neighborhood (aided greatly by Ben Stanton’s warm lighting). From an ingeniously simple yet jarring special effect to a striking transition where two chairs and a set of candlesticks magically becomes a church, this is another strong showing from Long Wharf’s longtime artistic director.

Yet, despite their best efforts, Kennedy’s script never quite comes together in a satisfying way. There are gorgeous passages – my favorite of which details Luda’s childhood on the coast of Italy – and some witty repartee for the sisters. But she leans far too heavily on tropes and scenarios we’ve seen many times before: the fiery Italian mother, the physically abusive father, the young girl coming to grips with her sexuality, the struggles of being an immigrant. Playing off well-worn archetypes isn’t an automatic death knell as many brilliant works, like Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” operate in exploring and exploiting them. But Kennedy lacks the fire or originality Letts brought to the Weston clan. Especially in the first act, there’s just not enough transformation or insight brought to these stock characters and a few twists feel more like playwriting exercises than natural occurrences.

Yet I was thoroughly engrossed in the turbulent Christmas dinner scene and moved by many others, like Luda and Connie’s conversation near the conclusion. The play’s message of family, sacrifice and identity are important, especially now, and resonate whether you come from a loud Italian family (which I don’t), a loud Irish family (which, again, I don’t) or a loud Jewish family (which I do). Amidst the conventional set-ups and occasional false notes, there was honest, down-to-earth poetic beauty shared, most often than not, around the Muscolino’s table. They made the trip to “Napoli, Brooklyn” well worth it.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” runs through March 12 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. It will also play June 9-September 3 at Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson — Long Wharf Theatre