'Dinner With the Boys': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Dan Lauria, Ray Abruzzo and Richard Zavaglia in 'Dinner With the Boys'
Dan Lauria's expert comic skills aren't enough to lift this formulaic Mafia-themed farce

Dan Lauria of 'The Wonder Years' fame stars in his playwriting debut, a black comedy about a pair of hitmen facing retribution from their mob bosses.

The goombah cliches come fast and furious in Dan Lauria's Dinner With the Boys, which marks the playwriting debut of the beloved Wonder Years actor. Revolving around two old-world hitmen holed up in a house in "the wilds of New Jersey" after incurring the displeasure of their mob boss, this Mafia-themed comedy plays like a gangster variation on Arsenic and Old Lace with a touch of Sweeney Todd flavoring.

The play had a successful world premiere run last year at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. But it's unlikely to find a similarly warm reception in the more demanding off-Broadway climate despite the starring presence of Lauria, who received kudos for his turns in such recent Broadway shows as Lombardi and A Christmas Story: The Musical. Rounding out the cast are two actors with screen mob pedigrees: Richard Zavaglia (Donnie Brasco) and Ray Abruzzzo (The Sopranos).

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Cohabitating like an old-married couple are Charlie (Lauria) and Dom (Zavaglia), with the latter — who makes his entrance singing, what else, "Mambo Italiano" — cooking up impressive Italian meals using vegetables from their garden, fertilized by the crushed bones of their victims. As for the the meat… well, you shouldn't have to ask. Their banter consists partially of discussing world affairs — Charlie is disgusted by the amount of violence in the world — and colorful reminiscences of their greatest, pardon the pun, hits, including the time Charlie burned a victim alive in a pizza oven.

"Now I know why Nunzio's crust has that unique taste," Dom comments.

Their time in exile is interrupted by the fateful arrivals of younger, hot-headed mob boss Big Anthony, Jr. (Abruzzo), and an elderly Jewish capo known as "The Uncle Sid" (Abruzzo again). Both visitors have nefarious plans for Charlie and Dom that are only foiled by the two men's loyalty to each other.

With dialogue featuring endless rhapsodies to Dom's "tiny white meatballs" and his advice to his friend that he "gotta learn to stop and smell the zucchini," the play offers up a plethora of gags and one-liners that fall thuddingly flat. Director Frank Megna's heavy-handed staging doesn't help matters with its dramatic shifts in lighting that seem more appropriate to Eugene O'Neill than farce.

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The engaging performers do what they can with the material, with Lauria and Zavaglia exhibiting a relaxed comic rapport and Abruzzo tearing into his broadly drawn dual roles with gusto. But their efforts are not enough to make the proceedings palatable, with the abundance of gory violence on display leaving a sour aftertaste. The production's most authentic element is Jessica Parks' detailed set, featuring a framed photograph of Sinatra and a cheesy reproduction of da Vinci's "The Last Supper" that dovetails nicely with the play's theme.

Dinner With the Boys was written years ago and received a Los Angeles reading featuring Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise, Peter Falk and Jack Klugman, all of whom died before the project could reach fruition. While that dream cast would certainly have enlivened the tired material, the play's current incarnation mainly swims with the fishes.

Cast: Dan Lauria, Ray Abruzzo, Richard Zavaglia
Playwright: Dan Lauria
Director: Frank Megna
Set designer: Jessica Parks
Costume designer: Patricia E. Doherty
Lighting designer: Jill Nagle
Sound designer: Matt Kraus
Presented by Pat Flicker Addiss, Olympus Theatricals