Dining With Dan Lauria, Author and Star of Dinner With the Boys
Lauria's new mafia-themed dark comedy is a tribute to four titans of the acting world, who also happened to be his best friends.
We're sitting in the rear of Tony's Di Napoli restaurant in the heart of Times Square, where remnants of family-style plates of eggplant parm and calamari are crowding the table. When Dan Lauria, the still-iconic star of TV's The Wonder Years, asks if you want to end the meal with a cappuccino, you don't say no.
The topic of discussion is his new play, Dinner With the Boys, coming to Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre after a sold-out run last year at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The dark comedy stars its author alongside two other recognizable faces from stage and screen: Ray Abruzzo (Little Carmine on HBO's The Sopranos) and Richard Zavaglia (whose credits range from Cagney and Lacey to Donnie Brasco). Audiences have taught Lauria that the play is a laugh riot, but he's hard-pressed to take credit for the best lines.
The play started with a question posed by the late, great Dom DeLuise, on a drive to the annual Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament in Palm Springs. "Dom knew I wrote," Lauria remembers, "and said, 'What are you working on?' I said I wanted to write something serious about all the violence the kids are watching. Right away, Dom said, 'What are you gonna do, stand on a soapbox and preach? You gotta make it funny.' How are you gonna make consuming violence funny? He said, 'Well, consuming means eating.' That was it."
And thus, Dinner With the Boys was born, for a cast headed by DeLuise and three of Lauria's other boldfaced pals. "We wrote a part for [DeLuise] and Charles Durning," Lauria says, "and then Peter Falk would enter." A one-act version met a certain level of opposition from DeLuise, who declared that there was more to the story that needed to be told in a second act. "That's when we introduced Jack Klugman."
"Jesus, they were funny," Lauria says wistfully of his four legendary original cast members. Yet even with their names attached, he had a hard time getting it produced. "Believe it or not, with that cast, it was rejected by four places." Their deaths — DeLuise in 2009, followed by Falk in 2011, and Durning and Klugman within hours of each other on Christmas Eve, 2012 — made Lauria shelve the project. But not for long.
Unable to say a full goodbye to the project, he submitted his script, dusted off and fine-tuned, to his friends Suzanne and Gabor Barabas, artistic director and executive producer of New Jersey Repertory Company. After an eight-year gestation, the play finally took the stage in 2014 in a full production under the direction of Frank Zegna. "We didn't get one bad review, which shocked me," Lauria says. "I always felt that a third of the audience would be really turned off, and it turned out we only lost five people in the whole run. People get that it's a joke."
What is the joke exactly? Lauria plays coy. "We don't want to give too much away." What he does reveal is that it's a show about a pair of wise guys awaiting their fate — and their deliciously gruesome punishment — after a mafia hit goes wrong.
"Every broken nose in New Jersey came," Lauria remembers. His favorite audience encounter is still one that gets him a little bit scared. "This guy called and said, 'I saw the show last week and I'm coming back. I need four tickets.' We said, 'I'm sorry sir, we have no tickets.' He said, 'I don't think you understand. There will be four seats.' So we put four seats in the aisle and broke the fire law. This guy came in, right out of the movies. Black silk Armani suit, with a white tie, and three guys, each bigger than the other, in running suits. They're sitting there laughing at everything. When it was over, we go into the lobby, and this guy comes over to me and goes, 'You knew Sal Beducci, didn't you?' I'm convinced Ray put him up to it and Ray insists he had nothing to do with it."
The New York run, which opens on May 4, was the brainchild of producer Pat Flicker Addiss, who was on the producing team of A Christmas Story The Musical (which Lauria starred in as humorist Jean Shepherd) and sits on the board of NJ Rep. To celebrate the show's run, Lauria and his fellow cast members will join his audience for a meal at Tony's once every week, a dinner-and-a-show package (which is still being finalized).
As for the show itself, it's still slaying them in the aisles. "Never cut the funny," Lauria says, going on to confess that the lines that get the biggest laughs were ones DeLuise came up with on the spot during table reads. "They were like my dads," he says of his original cast. Their spirits, looking down and chuckling as much as the audience, are still evident throughout the production and deeply embedded into the script. In fact, what did he name the two lead characters? Charlie and Dom.