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Tolstoy certainly made things difficult for theatergoers by declaring in his opening line of Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It feels like we’ve been deluged with tales of dysfunctional families ever since, the latest being Meghan Kennedy’s drama receiving its New York City premiere with the Roundabout Theatre Company. Set in 1960 and concerning a working-class Italian clan struggling under the rule of its violent patriarch, Napoli, Brooklyn feels both thematically overstuffed and undernourished.
The playwright — whose previous, and much subtler, Too Much, Too Much, Too Many was also presented by Roundabout — seems to be straining too hard for effect here. From a central character’s opening monologue addressing an onion to the dramatic incident midway through that completely changes another character’s personality (at least, until it doesn’t), the drama creaks under the weight of too many machinations.
The play introduces us to the Muscolino family, headed by blue-collar worker Nic (Michael Rispoli), whose violent temper becomes immediately apparent when he tells one of his daughters, “I will cut out your throat.” There’s also his long-suffering wife, Ludovica (Alyssa Bresnahan), or Luda, with whom he enjoys a passionate if sadomasochistic sex life; their oldest daughter Tina (Lilli Kay), toiling in a dead-end job at a factory; middle sister Vita (Elise Kibler), temporarily living in a convent while recuperating from serious injuries suffered at her father’s hands; and 16-year-old Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), dreaming of stowing away on a ship to France with Connie (Juliet Brett), with whom she has a relationship that goes beyond friendship.
Other characters figuring in the melodramatic proceedings are Connie’s father Albert (Erik Lochtefeld), the local Irish butcher who’s long had a crush on Luda; and Tina’s African-American co-worker Celia (Shirine Babb), who encourages her to go to night school.
The play moves slowly and fitfully through a procession of short scenes, several taking place at the dinner table. When the characters are not speaking reverently about Luda’s Italian cooking, they’re talking about Nic’s brutishness toward his family and the women’s varying efforts to break free from their unhappy circumstances. The playwright then throws the audience a curve ball when an unexpected dramatic event changes the lives of all involved.
The incident — conveyed via stage and lighting effects and a deafening noise so shocking one can only hope the theater is equipped with defibrillators — actually happened in Brooklyn, but it still feels like a cheat, a too-tidy dramatic device for propelling character development. It does, however, have the helpful effect of waking up audience members who might have been dozing during the sluggishly paced, familiar-feeling proceedings.
The play benefits from a strong sense of atmosphere provided by director Gordon Edelstein, although the Irish and Italian accents often leave something to be desired. Eugene Lee’s set design effectively conveys the various locales through such simple devices as large signs advertising the butcher shop or the manufacturing company, and a statue of Jesus on the cross. The performances are largely first-rate, although Rispoli, for one, struggles to bring freshness to his archetypal role.
That the characters frequently rave about Luda’s delicious cooking, while the audience never gets a whiff, feels emblematic of Napoli, Brooklyn. For all its seeming authenticity — the play was inspired by events in the life of the playwright’s mother — the evening feels as ersatz as today’s tourist-clogged Little Italy.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Shirine Babb, Alyssa Bresnahan, Juliet Brett, Jordyn DiNatale, Lilli Kay, Elise Kibler, Erik Lochtefeld, Michael Rispoli
Playwright: Meghan Kennedy
Director: Gordon Edelstein
Set designer: Eugene Lee
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
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