EmptyStudio Dante, New York
Through March 31
"The Sopranos" returns to HBO on April 8. Can't wait that long to get a glimpse of gun-toting goombah Christopher Moltisanti and Mafia widow Rosalie Aprile? There's a solution, at least of sorts.
Michael Imperioli and Sharon Angela, the actors who bring those unforgettable TV characters to life, are treading the boards in "Chicken," a new play at Studio Dante, the theater that Imperioli and his wife, Victoria, opened in November 2003.
So much for the good news. The bad is that Mike Batistick, the author of "Chicken," should be fitted for cement shoes.
The ho-hum setup is relatively straightforward: Floyd (Imperioli) has been bunking in the cluttered Bronx apartment of his old buddy Wendell (E.J. Carroll) and his pregnant wife, Lena (Angela), for more than three months, as well as dipping into their finances. But Wendell has come up with what he considers a perfect solution.
Floyd, who grew up in the world of cockfighting, will turn Wendell's rooster into a champion scrapper. One big match later, they'll all be rich and Floyd can find his own living quarters. It's a can't-miss plan, or so the principals believe.
One needn't be Kreskin to know that nothing will go as designed. However, Batistick doesn't let the story line develop. Instead, he continually introduces new characters -- like Floyd's sleazy wife (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the scheming local bird merchant (Raul Aranas) or Floyd's ailing dad (Lazaro Perez) -- to provide unnecessary detours.
Once those detours start, there's no end in sight. Elder abuse, infidelity, gay hookups, secret pasts, health issues, 180-degree power shifts and the search for the American dream come into play as audience members are yanked from dark comedy to domestic drama to full-blown tragedy. It's a dizzying trip, with the final destination as unsatisfying as everything that precedes it.
Director Nick Sandow, who helmed three previous productions at Studio Dante, has yet to prove himself as a talent in his field, though he has consistently dealt with problematic material. That's why most of the blame belongs with Batistick. Although he earns credit for trying to draw characters who are seriously flawed, the end result lacks the necessary logic and continuity to form an absorbing, cohesive plot.
Truth be told, this isn't Imperioli's best day, either. As a half-Cuban drifter, his accent often wanders, and his more explosive moments seem like a forced imitation of a minor-league Robert De Niro. Imperioli still has charisma, but that only goes so far.
Angela fares better as she navigates the line between expectation and desperation, though even her finely honed skills can't explain Lena's physical and verbal flip-flops. Without exception, the rest of the troupe also try hard, but there's little payoff for viewers.
Sad to say, but the best part of the show is getting to watch the antics of the title character: an onstage rooster listed as Dino in the credits. He soars, albeit briefly, on several occasions, which is more than can ever be said for "Chicken."
Presented by Studio Dante
Playwright: Mike Batistick
Director: Nick Sandow
Assistant director: Zetna Fuentes
Set/costume designer: Victoria Imperioli
Lighting designer: Tony Giovannetti
Sound designer: David Margolin Lawson
Floyd: Michael Imperioli
Lena: Sharon Angela
Wendell: E.J. Carroll
Geronimo: Raul Aranas
Felix: Lazaro Perez
Rosalind: Quincy Tyler Bernstine