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The twisted paths of love and desire have been good to John Patrick Shanley, whether in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck, his punchy breakout play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea or in later works like the soulful charmer Outside Mullingar. The playwright has also been good to Manhattan Theatre Club, penning one of its most prestigious hits in the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning 2004 drama, Doubt. But what was previously fertile thematic terrain becomes barren ground in the feeble romantic comedy The Portuguese Kid, doing neither the writer nor the theater company any favors.
An underdeveloped doodle that tosses around allusions to Greek mythology as weightlessly as it takes inorganic jabs at Donald Trump, the play squanders the talents of a gifted cast of comedic actors, in which Jason Alexander, making a rare New York stage appearance, is flanked by beloved theater regulars Sherie Rene Scott and human cannon Mary Testa. Under Shanley’s pedestrian direction, the ensemble is required to labor so hard breathing life into the material that it could almost be classified as employee abuse.
Shanley’s most recent MTC premiere was last year’s Prodigal Son, a dramatically wobbly excavation of the playwright’s adolescence that at least had some moral complexity on its side. That production also served to showcase the bristling, nervy talents of Timothee Chalamet, a year ahead of his riveting breakout screen performance in Call Me by Your Name. There’s no scope for anything so remarkable from the cast of The Portuguese Kid, and no trace of any personal connection from the playwright, beyond having the characters speak, for no discernible reason, in what sound like cartoonishly thick Bronx accents. In fact, it’s hard even to pin down what the play is meant to be about, beyond generic rounds in the familiar boxing ring of man vs. woman, attraction vs. fear and youthful hunger vs. middle-aged indignation.
Scott plays Atalanta Lagana, a well-heeled widow who has just buried the latest of two husbands — both of them wealthy real estate developers. Still wearing chic black mourning garb with an aggressive push-up bra, she revisits her old acquaintance and lawyer Barry Dragonetti (Alexander) to get her messy financial holdings in order. Atalanta wants him to handle the sale of her multimillion-dollar mansion in Providence, Rhode Island, but Barry smells danger.
His overbearing gorgon of a Croatian mother (Testa) loathes Atalanta. She even went so far as to steer her into marriage to her last husband to get her away from Barry, “a sucker” who completed his late father’s work in shaping Mrs. Dragonetti’s bitter view of men. She warns Atalanta to stay away from her son: “Take my advice. Get fat. Count your money. You’ve killed enough men.”
Atalanta lets slip that during both her marriages, she got into sticky situations by involuntarily crying out Barry’s name during sex. He’s flattered, but keeps his distance, retreating to the relatively safe arms of his young wife Patty (Aimee Carrero), a Latin spitfire from Newark who craves “mystique.” Atalanta is romantically enmeshed with Patty’s 29-year-old ex, Freddie Imbrossi (Pico Alexander), who wants to handle the house sale and score the hefty commission himself. A glorious moon and Atalanta’s womanly allure bring out the poet in him, but the shallow opportunist isn’t far behind.
In addition to being likened to Clytemnestra due to her knack for husband disposal, Atalanta is named for the virgin huntress who found love and marriage only with an intervention from Aphrodite, after laying waste to unworthy suitors. Her name comes from a Greek word meaning “equal in weight,” so she’s not one to accept defeat in a contest. Barry has felt emasculated by her ever since she rescued him from a Portuguese mugger back in their youth, and only after he faces up to the symbolic avatar of that aggressor from the past is his desire for the heroic Atalanta awakened.
John Lee Beatty’s lavishly kitschy theatrical sets and the jaunty musical scene transitions suggest that Shanley is aiming for the kind of old-fashioned boulevard comedy in which mismatched couples circle one another, creating emotional chaos and friction until they finally stumble into the right pairings. True to predictable form, that all happens here during a lunch on Atalanta’s garden terrace to decide who’s going to sell the house.
Shanley is too skilled a writer not to muster at least mild amusement, but the comedy mostly is an awkward collision of shrill and flat, nowhere more so than when Atalanta is fuming about the aberration of Trump and all that he represents for women. This feels like an afterthought stitched into a script pulled out of a bottom drawer. The divine Scott has sexy attitude to spare, but in order for the contemporary edge to be convincing, there would have had to be some connection to reality among the play’s cliched, one-dimensional characters. It also wouldn’t have hurt to make at least one or two of them likeable.
Venue: NY City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Jason Alexander, Sherie Rene Scott, Pico Alexander, Aimee Carrero, Mary Testa
Director-playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music & sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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