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There have been so many variations wrought on the dynamics of the criminal family (particularly that of the Italian persuasion), that squeezing new insights or even fresh thrills out of the genre can require a sacral formalism not so far in function from a Noh drama.
Unorganized Crime finds some originality and a great deal of tanginess from its fleet depiction of the surprise reunion of two brothers, the disgraced bumbler Gino Sicuso (Kenny d’Aquila), exiled by his rejecting capo father Carmelo (Carmen Argenziano) to a marginal existence in Michigan with his hooker-wife Rosie (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and the older Sal Sicuso (Chazz Palminteri), assassin and scion heir-apparent of the “third largest crime family in New York”. Sal brings bad news and good news: their mother has been killed, and he can offer Gino his coveted second chance at becoming a made man.
Key to the entertainment of this theatrical experience are its quicksilver reversals of fortune, so further plot points are best left to omerta. However, the larger pleasure resides in its heightened dialogue so riddled with idiomatic argot that its stylization seems as ritualized as a Noel Coward comedy of manners, and the mechanics of menace and murder startlingly reminiscent of farce. All hands are savvy enough under the guidance of the reliably focused direction of David Fofi that, given this flagrant flirting with the ludicrous, everyone play unstintingly straight, which they do with shivery, businesslike seriousness. The tension is ratcheted up considerably by having the action unfold within the classical verities of space and time, within the single apartment and a brutally swift 70 minute span.
It’s a rare occasion that an Oscar-nominated actor (Palminteri, for Bullets Over Broadway) and a Tony-nominated actress (Rodriguez, for The Motherfucker with the Hat) appear in a 99-seat theater, albeit for a limited run. But this is a commemorative occasion, Palminteri’s first return to the Los Angeles stage since his career exploded with his one-man show A Bronx Tale in a similarly small venue in 1989. For all his success in fifty films since, he has never since been as explosively impressive onscreen as he was in that revelatory piece of inspired storytelling. This man belongs live in a tight space: his coiled intensity and control of rhythm and timing are best unleashed without the confines of a frame and does not require any closeups.
Playwright D’Aquila (his Uptown premiered the same season as Palminteri’s in a local waiver house) shares Palminteri’s relish for a good yarn and chewy, plummy lines, and interestingly, he assumes the role of a genuinely weak man, flauting the intent of a vanity vehicle by eschewing any pretense to stardom. Yet he makes a compelling, if infuriating, leading man out of this vacillating, intrinsically feckless character. Rodriguez, for her part, tends to play with relatively few notes, all of which she works for maximal nuance. She works these constraints to let us see the trapped instinct for survival in someone who has had only very few choices in life, all of them bad.
There are some lapses in credibility, and the balancing act between the boldness of mixed tones and the requisites of melodrama can teeter precariously at times, but Unorganized Crime delivers a wallop with the irony necessary to contemporize these old conceits. Like the best of its kind, it’s Greek tragedy reimagined through a modern lens.
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