Michael Rispoli and Ralph Macchio in Magic Hands Freddy(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Michael Rispoli and Ralph Macchio in Magic Hands Freddy
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There's a lot to be said for the effect on a play of an audience falling in love with the main character or with the actor playing him. Or with both. In Arje Shaw's Magic Hands Freddy Michael Rispoli -- who plays the title character -- makes himself seem absolutely inseparable from the role. It's the best sort of performing imaginable, not acting but ineffable being.

A chunky, medium-height man with a round, mobile face and big arms, Rispoli (whom some ticket-buyers will recognize from The Sopranos) lets emotions flicker on his face like images on a screen. He hides nothing, he forces nothing -- everything he does is strikingly believable. And because he's required by director Rebecca Taylor to do a good deal of his work up and down the narrow SoHo Playhouse aisle, he is, for enthralled patrons, incomparably Freddy up close and personal.

First heard bemoaning something intriguingly vague and then describing an ability to extract energy from the ground, Freddy explains that this energy-storing knack is what makes him a masseur worthy of his nickname. Then he goes on to tell his story and the interlocking story of his younger brother, Calvin (Ralph Macchio). A second-generation Italian, Freddy also introduces his Italian-born wife, Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia), with whom he has a strained relationship, due in part to their differing attitudes toward raising their Down Syndrome child, April.

With open-faced ease, Freddy subsequently fills in a couple of decades of autobiography. During those years, he put Calvin through school, eventually supporting Calvin's interest in art history and an academic career built around a special obsession with Peter Paul Rubens. Because Freddy loves his brother unconditionally and wishes that he could love his wife the same way, he comes off as an utterly good man -- the blue-collar worker down the block whom all the kids adore, whom the husbands consider a pal, and of whom the wives approve.

In the two-act play, Freddy also flashes back on the trip to Italy during which he and Calvin met Maria and how, in the early days of their acquaintance, both of them pursued her. The action moves forward to a few events that Freddy would never have predicted, one of them Maria's decision to leave the marriage and return to her home. In the wake of her departure, big-hearted Freddy is confronted with a few more revelations about Calvin, Maria, and himself that threaten to destroy the homespun live-and-let-live philosophy that is so much a part of his appeal.

Since the producers have chosen to describe the comedy-drama on the program cover as "a new play about love and betrayal," Shaw's crucial late-in-the-play disclosure won't be much of a surprise to the savvy theatergoer -- or even, for that matter, to less hip observers. Indeed, the reversal just before the denouement seems a cliché as well as contrived. Also, in Shaw's writing, Freddy runs the risk of being too good to be true. (Shaw's last play, The Gathering, had some of the same drawbacks.) Furthermore, there's an odd development at the first act curtain that needs clearing up in the writing and/or direction; currently, it sends audience members out for intermission scratching their heads more than they ought to be.

What redeems Shaw is his presentation of the endearing Freddy -- and Calvin and Maria, too -- as believable even if their every action isn't. Freddy telling Calvin why he should stick to being a veterinarian and not pursue his interest in art is especially funny. Suggesting that Calvin think about specializing in animal psychiatry, he says, "You don't have to stick your finger up a chicken's ass or a cat's nose. You just talk to 'em." Hard not to laugh at that -- at least, not as Rispoli nonchalantly throws the line off.

With Taylor directing them to be straightforward but not to underplay the Italian parts of their make-up, Ralph (The Karate Kid) Macchio and Antoinette LaVecchia contribute to a verisimilitude that helps offset the not very helpful environment provided by scenic and lighting designer Jason Strum on what appears to be a low budget. (Costume designer Yvonne De Moravia does fine with her share of whatever capital was available; there's also a nice, uncredited sound design incorporating "Torna a Sorriento" and other ethnic favorites.) Macchio, now 42 and no longer much of a kid or much of a karate type, is a convincing college professor. He's rather clever about juggling the selfish, loving, and calculating aspects of Calvin's personality.

Michael Rispoli in Magic Hands Freddy(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Michael Rispoli in Magic Hands Freddy
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The thin and angular LaVecchia, who at times looks astonishingly like Tracey Ullman (has anyone ever seen them together?), is shrewd at switching from Maria's brittle demeanor to earthy seductiveness and back again. Ed Chemaly plays a number of roles suitably but it's his portrayal of a fastidious, affable mortician that gives him the most latitude and gets him the most laughs. Shaw supplies some strong lines with which to get those laughs: "Breathing," the mortician chirps at one point, "It's the one thing that separates us from the dead."

Nevertheless, the pressing reason to see Magic Hands Freddy is Michael Rispoli. He embodies the part so fully that it wouldn't be surprising if Shaw is asked by television wheeler-dealers to make Freddy the focus of a sitcom; that's how living-room friendly this guy is. The subtleties Rispoli brings to the role of a man uninterested in subtleties are legion, but perhaps one example will serve to suggest the many. When Maria at last declares that she's leaving Freddy in spite of his blandishments, she's standing close to him but turns away. As she does this, Freddy/Rispoli leans in to smell her hair and the back of her neck. He can't stop himself; it's a reflexive gesture. It's also heartbreaking because, in this almost imperceptible movement, the enormity of what he may be losing forever overcomes him.

Freddy's blend of feelings rise from Rispoli as pungently and plangently as a mesmerizing cologne. Perhaps it was his idea to try the bit of business noted above and director Taylor asked him to keep it in; or perhaps it was Taylor's notion and Rispoli has the finesse to bring it off big time. (The action isn't called for in Shaw's text.) Wherever the fleeting moment came from, it's inspired -- perhaps the single most inspired split-second of performing in town at the moment.

Talking about his skill as a masseur, Freddy calls himself "the K-mart of healing." He also says, "My secret is heat. The heat comin' off my hands is enough for me to iron my own shirts." Well, the assured actor's heat coming off Rispoli is enough to make Magic Hangs Freddy a small, unexpected pleasure. Bring your unironed shirts.