A Room of My Own
Ralph Macchio stars in a nostalgic look at Italian-American life in Greenwich Village.
Tennessee Williams broke our hearts with his memory play The Glass Menagerie. In his own stab at the form, Charles Messina seems most content to bust our guts. His latest play, A Room of My Own (now making its world premiere at Abingdon Theatre Company), is a truly hilarious memoir of growing up Italian-American in New York City. That doesn't mean it isn't also heartbreaking. Messina introduces us to a world in which comedy and tragedy go hand in hand. And unlike the stilted Wingfields of St. Louis, the uninhibited Morellis of New York have a tendency to talk back to the author.
The play opens with an introduction by Carl Morelli (the original Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio), a playwright trying his hand at family drama by using as inspiration his own memories of growing up on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village. This is in 1979, before the neighborhood was a playground for yuppies and NYU students. "Our little corner of the world was still a staunch Italian-American enclave," he tells us, "with the first wave of immigrants who had settled there around the turn of the century, now aging, and dying in the shadow of the church. St. Anthony's Church." St. Anthony's got applause at the performance I attended, apparently a real trip down memory lane for the audience.
Little Carl (Nico Bustamante as the kid version) lives with his mother Dotty (Joli Tribuzio, simultaneously hilarious and maudlin), father Peter (pitch-perfect Johnny Tammaro), and sister Jeannie (Kendra Jain) in a rent-controlled studio apartment. Dad is unemployed and mom regularly resorts to theft to pay the bills. They're poor, and that's a problem considering Christmas is around the corner and Carl wants an Atari. More than that, however, he wants a room of his own. Mom knows this is a pipe dream: She can't even afford the kids' Catholic school tuition, much less a sprawling home in the suburbs.
Enter Dotty's brother Jackie (Mario Cantone), screaming: "Oh yeah?!" he shouts at an unnamed adversary in the hallway, "I'd like to see you try it! I'd like to see you try, you son-of-a-bitch bastid! Next time I'll hit you with the hammer right on the top of your head!" Cantone is particularly adept at interpreting Messina's salty language, a blitzkrieg of F-bombs and stinging retorts. He's magnificently over-the-top: Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Doris Day, he swishes through the apartment hurling invective at the landlord, the neighbors, and a greedy nun hounding the Morellis for tuition. "They forget they take a vow a' poverty," he scoffs.
Uncle Jackie regularly bails out his sister's family, but they're so deep in the red this time that Dotty decides to go to the only person she knows with real money: Peter's sister Jean (Liza Vann, looking and sounding like Joan Collins with an intense perm). The only problem is that Peter and Jean haven't spoken in 20 years due to an inheritance dispute. Will dad be able to relinquish his pride for the good of the family?
Adult Carl sits on the side of the stage throughout, commenting on the action and occasionally hitting delete when a memory proves too unpleasant (not that his characters obey). It's a useful (albeit gimmicky) framing device. No one really wants to watch the playwright's editing process, but Macchio is a sympathetic narrator, so we go along with it.
While his script occasionally feels half-finished, Messina's production (he also directs) is exquisitely detailed. Scenic designer Brian Dudkiewicz replicates a tenement circa 1979: bursting at the seams with clothes and cookware, sparsely decorated with Christmas garland and pictures of Jesus. A large sofa bed takes center stage, sporting a print that could have only been inspired by a pool of vomit on Mulberry Street during the San Gennaro Festival. Catherine Siracusa's costumes are equally memorable: Chest hair spills out of Tammoro's open collar while Vann wears a full-length fur coat over a blue beaded dress. Ian Wehrle's disco-tastic sound design completes this '70s illusion. "An' to think someday somebody's gonna call these the good ol' days," Jackie wryly observes.
Despite a slack plot, Messina's dialogue crackles with wit and vulgarity. Even in the most dramatic moments, a hilarious profanity-laced tirade is never far off. Some might find this deleterious to the dramatic tension of the play. You cannot fault Messina for inauthenticity, though: Some families really do use humor as a shield, self-pity as a sword. A Room of My Own is a truthful account of one such clan and its myths of self-preservation.