Joseph Somma, Rosie De Sanctis, and Stephen Capone in a publicity photo for Rockaway Boulevard(Photo © Scott Brooks)
Joseph Somma, Rosie De Sanctis, and Stephen Capone in
a publicity photo for Rockaway Boulevard
(Photo © Scott Brooks)
On the evidence of his 2002 military drama One Shot, One Kill, Richard Vetere wouldn't seem to be someone who'd walk directly up to a tough issue and then back away; even the title One Shot, One Kill is confrontational. But although Vetere's Rockaway Boulevard is packed with muscular writing, the author eventually pulls his punches here.

Johnny Montinelli (Stephen Capone) and wife Helen (Rosie DeSanctis) are still living in their rapidly deteriorating Queens neighborhood because Johnny's dad, an invalid who keeps banging upstairs for attention, refuses to sell the building in which the three of them are hunkered down. Johnny thinks he can better conditions for himself and Helen by buying into a business deal offered by a guy named Eddie Paris (Joe Somma). When Eddie shows up at the Montinelli apartment -- and when Johnny is out of the immediate vicinity -- Helen and Eddie start talking about their shared past. It seems they were lovers years before, and this is the last thing that Helen wants Johnny to learn.

Because Eddie is a slippery character, Helen has other plans for the $10,000 that Johnny's ready to hand over. She's earmarked it for the down payment on a new house located anywhere but dismal Rockaway Boulevard. Still, she's tempted to leave Johnny in the dust and join her old swain on his jaunts around the globe. But she remains very much in love with Johnny and regains her senses when Eddie comes on much too strong during his final visit to the shabby Montinelli apartment. (She does makes a crucial lapse in judgment when, having sent Eddie off, she refuses to respond one last time to her father-in-law's insistent knocking.)

As the Montinellis face the convoluted test of their marriage, they're threatened with Johnny hearing about the past that Helen and Eddie shared; they're also threatened with handing their hard-earned $10,000 to a scam artist and never seeing him or the cash again; and Helen, an admirable and believably good woman, is threatened with Johnny's finding out that she neglected his dad at a crucial moment. But guess what? As Vetere lays out his plot, these threats turn out to be idle. Nothing that looms menacingly comes to pass. The playwright gives the Montinellis a happy ending.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a happy ending, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with skirting audience expectations. Vetere knows that those in attendance are waiting for either Eddie or Helen to spill the beans about their one-time romance and probably thinks that keeping their secret safe with them is a legitimate surprise -- but it isn't. If you're going to fake out the ticket buyers, you've got to find a more ingenious way of doing it. This also goes for the money at stake. As for the business with the aggravating old man: At the very least, Vetere needs to deal with the residual guilt that a woman as sensitive as Helen would experience. Also, the dramatist has written Johnny as a hand grenade waiting to have his pin pulled; when first discovered, he's topping off 50 push-ups and flexing his biceps. It's an appealing notion to depict a marriage that endures despite conflict, but Vetere's approach is too underdone.

There's another curious drawback to the production, which Sean Linehan has designed and lit. Vetere's play was developed in the late '70s and had two New York outings in the '80s. For this revival, Vetere has updated the script with references to vogueing and Donald Trump, for example. But the effort is half-hearted, even confusing, for director Charles Messina has chosen to precede the play with some of the great hits of the '50s and '60s: "Earth Angel," "Stagger Lee," and the slightly later "Knock Three Times," which is almost a sound gag since that upstairs noise-maker never stops at just three. Why aren't Helen and Johnny listening to Madonna and Prince? That's what was playing when they were courting. More detrimentally, when Eddie arrives for his initial call, he's wearing a window-pane suit (no costume designer is credited) that's meant to impress the Montinellis for its suave flash. They say that they're impressed, all right; but no one, including the Montinellis, would really be impressed if somebody declaring himself to be an up-to-the-minute mover and shaker walked through the door resembling Ali Hakim from Oklahoma!.

Although director Messina allows the early segments of Rockaway Boulevard to feel a bit slack, he eventually picks up the pace. The actors come through for him. Capone taps into Johnny's crudeness and uncertainty; he even brings off Vetere's occasional poetic lines, as when Johnny says that he wants to live in a place where "the sky and the sidewalk aren't the same shade of gray." DeSanctis, in the play's best-written role, finds all the subtleties of Helen's abiding love and gnawing frustration. Somma, often twirling a hat to show just now nonchalant he is, is so polished as Eddie that he practically triggers Victorian melodrama hisses. Perhaps with performances like these encouraging him, playwright Vetere will make more than cosmetic changes the next time he heads toward Rockaway Boulevard.