Dinner With the Boys
The Corleones join forces with Sweeney Todd in Dan Lauria's farce-scented dark comedy Dinner With the Boys, now making its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Neither the demon barber nor the cinephile's favorite mob family actually make cameos in the new play, but the delightful collision of these two worlds suggest that a collaboration could have spared both parties a fair amount of grief.
Lauria proves himself to be much more than just the intimidating patriarch from The Wonder Years, serving as both playwright and star of this debut production. As the program notes, his first drafts of the play were written for an auspicious quartet of actors (before it was pared down to a trio piece), which included Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise, Jack Klugman, and Peter Falk. Though each member of this original dream cast has since passed, a sense of joyful camaraderie remains at the core of the project, now in the directorial hands of Frank Megna.
The play pivots around a Mafioso bromance, led by Lauria as Charlie and Richard Zavaglia as Dom. We find the lovable pair of prolific murderers in the kitchen of their quaint New Jersey cottage. Set designer Jessica Parks adds a distinctive Italian grandma touch to their abode, with floral mugs, cupcake-patterned potholders, and of course, a king-size crucifix, shaping a perfectly incongruous dwelling space for our imposing male leads.
Dom in particular finds the locale perfect for honing his culinary talents, especially with Charlie's homegrown tomatoes and zucchini at his fingertips. The two, overall, seem happy as clams with the setup. We soon learn, however, that settling down in the Garden State was not a conscious career move. Charlie and Dom were essentially exiled from their home base in Brooklyn after refusing to off one of their best friends at the order of Big Anthony Jr. (played by Ray Abruzzo) — a powerful mobster who pops in both to settle some unfinished business and to enjoy one of Dom's "special" dinners where exotic meats are always a featured menu item.
As an alum of the hit (no pun intended) mafia series The Sopranos, Abruzzo sinks right into his volatile, food-spitting character. He joins Lauria and Zavaglia in a Marx Brothers-like patter, which, after a brief warm-up, begins to flow nicely out of the trio. It takes a large portion of the first act to see the forest for the trees as seemingly directionless exposition piles on, but once a path is cleared, it becomes an enjoyable stroll through the park. The first half stands alone as its own one-acter, as does Act 2, which features a brand-new dinner guest: a Yiddish-spouting mob boss (also played by Abruzzo) who stirs up more trouble for Charlie and Dom.
Lauria and Zavaglia make a sweet pair in this send-up of mafia entertainment in which Lauria hopes to offer a humorous critique of today's culture of excessive (and excessively glorified) violence. A passing reference to a newspaper packed with international war headlines draws out this more earnest theme. Unfortunately, its purpose is easily overlooked as the absurdist plot narrows our focus to the bizarre events at hand. Though entertaining in their own right, adding more meat to the play's promising bones can only serve it well in the future productions it will hopefully receive.