Laughter masks a wealth of pain in Frank Ingrasciotta’s tonally unbalanced one-man show Blood Type: RAGU, now playing at the Actors Playhouse, in which he takes audiences on a whirlwind tour of his troubled life with Italian immigrant parents in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s.
During the first half of the show, the performer depicts his childhood as a sort of screwball existence. Mom is a woman who dotes on him excessively while attempting to navigate life in her adoptive country. Her English is poor — she uses flatware that’s “steelless stain” — and she has to deal with an overbearing husband, who can strike fear into not only her heart, but those of his children. A loaf of Italian bread from the wrong bakery can give rise to a volcanic outburst. When life at home becomes too much for her, she takes 7-year-old Frank to Sicily for a few months. But, upon their return home, both son and mother discover that life with father is still difficult, so much so that his older siblings move out as soon as they can.
Unfortunately, this comic portrayal of his past — underscored by Joshua Higgason’s cartoon-like and sepia-infused projection design — doesn’t prepare audiences for the darker turn that the piece takes. Ingrasciotta describes how his father — after his parents’ divorce — broke his mothers’ fingers when she bought a coat for herself. He describes the difficulty he has in finding his own place in the world, and the difficulty he has with relationships. It’s a bit like watching Sophie and Dorothy Petrillo from The Golden Girls transition from their sitcom world to one that’s been written by Eugene O’Neill.
Still, Ingrasciotta’s ability to spin a comic tale is deft. When little Frank gets his first taste of fresh ricotta in his mother’s homeland as compared to the processed cheese he’s been brought up on in the U.S., the event is priceless. Even the fear inspired by his dad is played for a laugh: As television was a big part of his childhood, a sort of Robbie the Robot warning alert goes off as he announces “Danger! Danger!”
The star’s portraits of his mom, dad, and a host of other characters are beautifully rendered and often quite funny; he can change his accent, timbre of voice, and physical bearing within the blink of an eye. Moreover, director Ted Sod has done an exceptional job in ensuring that the many characters that Ingrasciotta plays all remain distinct.
However, the piece’s jarring bifurcationultimately undermines its ability to work completely as either a satisfying comic reminiscence or a dramatic coming-of-age piece that will speak to all audiences.