Antoinette LaVecchia
(© Catherine Gibbons)
Antoinette LaVecchia
(© Catherine Gibbons)
If the title of Antoinette LaVecchia's solo show, How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself), now at the Cherry Lane Studio, suggests one of those smart-alecky, schtick-ridden, ethnic cliché-fests, think again. LaVecchia -- who plays both herself and her heavily accented mother, Maria, an unassimilated transplant from Salerno -- is an imaginative dramatist and a vivid actor, who infuses her exploration of intergenerational strife with extraordinary tenderness and commendable creativity.

Equally important, her show warrants broader billing -- for example, "How to Come to Terms with Your Loving But Over-Involved Parent (Whatever Your Cultural Background, and In Fact Gender)." In addressing the specifics of her own struggle, LaVecchia has touched a common chord.

The overarching conflict of the piece, which centers on a post-divorce phase of self-redefinition, is a power struggle between LaVecchia and her mother over the former's reluctance to install curtains in the living room of her new apartment (Michael M. Moore's set is a jumble of cardboard boxes) and the latter's insistence on making them -- ideally the gaudier, the better.

LaVecchia's approach to the work is at once comprehensive and capricious; she seems to have cherry-picked the experiences that would be not only the most fun for her to perform but the most amusing for the audience to observe. Following the scene of her own birth, LaVecchia manages to pack in a recurrent childhood dream sequence starring her mother as a vengeful flying Samurai; an interactive lecture on the many shadings of the syllable "Ma"; a blues riff from Maria's point of view ("Nobody wanna help me fix my daughter life"); "Antoinette La Diva," in which she reenacts heroic scenes from a schlocky Italian movie musical; an illuminating encounter with a Tarot-reading crone; and -- best of all -- a satanic possession straight out of Bosch. The scenes are all spliced, of course, with constant nagging phone calls.

Indeed, the relationship between the two women can best be summed up by the moment when Maria cautions that men only want one thing and Antoinette notes that some women might, too: "Oh, Antoneh, disgusting, disgusting e disgusting," says Maria. "No bring scandal a my house because then you make you father have a heart attack and die and then you gotta go to the cemetery and say I so sorry, Daddy, I kill you." Indeed, if nothing else, LaVechhia proves that maternal guilt-mongering is a skill that transcends all national boundaries.