EmptyWadsworth Theatre, West Los Angeles (Through Sept. 21)
The current election season has brought with it many different, sometimes incompatible versions of the American dream.
Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale," which served as the actor's calling card in 1989 and subsequently was made into a deeply moving feature starring Palminteri and Robert De Niro (also his first directing gig), brings with it one of the most compelling of those dreams.
In re-creating one man's bittersweet struggle to sort out right from wrong and to find love incongruously in a violent world, "Bronx" remains a provocative counterpoint to more conventional gangster-code movies.
It has been almost two decades since Palminteri made his Broadway debut in the play he wrote and first performed in 1989 in Los Angeles and off-Broadway at Playhouse 91. Using the original script for this revival, which opened last year on Broadway, guarantees an authentic, unsentimental but affectionate take on the one-man play and its Damon Runyonesque street characters ("Frankie Coffee Cake," whose face is covered in acne, being a prime example).
It shows a man, also an actor, standing alone on a bare stage, so different from the complicated apparatus that takes over when such vulnerabilities are adapted for the big screen. It also serves as a poignant lens through which Palminteri looks back to his older selves, both in the play and in his own career.
It is a beautifully judged yet simple production in which Palminteri manages that most difficult of acting challenges, portraying a nearly score of charming and funny characters without relying lazily on his own considerable charm. Working with successful Broadway director Jerry Zaks, Palminteri exploits the physical space of the Wadsworth stage and presents the material with convincing spontaneity and often machine-gun speed, supported by impressive discipline and generosity. Even at the end, in a funeral parlor where his dead friend lies, Palminteri's faltering delivery benefits the character, not the actor.
Palminteri's work is enhanced by James Noone's elegant set, Paul Gallo's varied and effective lighting and John Gromada's audiophile sound, all of which help to carry the story along.
As the 90-minute show hits the two-thirds mark, and the boy-man Calogero falls in love, the story slows down and momentarily loses its momentum. But the action picks up violently with a series of unexpected consequences that include multiple murders and finishes with a virtuoso tour de flourish, showing that Palminteri, at 56, remains a passionate, eloquent and vital dramatic force.
An oddity is that Palminteri's Italian street accents occasionally take on Jackie Mason whine. Calogero's excessive courtesy also faintly echoes Paul Reiser's shtick with Steve Guttenberg in Barry Levinson's "Diner." Perhaps the use of these small nuances is Palminteri's way of saying that "Bronx" is not just an Italian story but a universal one that applies to all big-city immigrant groups.
Presented by Richmark Entertainment.
Playwright-performer: Chazz Palminteri.
Director: Jerry Zaks.
Set designer: James Noone.
Lighting designer: Paul Gallo.
Original music/sound designer: John Gromada.