The Portuguese Kid
Jason Alexander channels George Costanza in a new comedy by John Patrick Shanley.
"Because on television I've played a character that's so iconic," Jason Alexander told TheaterMania in 2014, "a lot of offers are in the mode of George Costanza. It would have to be a pretty spectacular role for me to come back and do that."
Perhaps after 22 years of Seinfeld being in syndication, Alexander has finally given up trying to shift the paradigm. His first Broadway show in 25 years was 2015's Fish in the Dark, in which he filled the shoes of Seinfeld creator Larry David. Now, Alexander is back in George mode in John Patrick Shanley's The Portuguese Kid at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Shanley reportedly wrote this play with Alexander in mind — no one plays a hapless neurotic quite like him — and it seems like Shanley probably had Seinfeld reruns on in the background during the process.
Alexander plays low-rent lawyer Barry Dragonetti. When he was 15, Barry was scarred for life after getting mugged by a "Portuguese kid," but it wasn't the actual mugging that did the scarring. It was the fact that a 10-year-old girl saved his life.
Barry has been at odds with Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott) ever since. He got married to a much younger Latina model named Patty (Aimee Carrero), while Atalanta has buried two husbands and is now dating the handsome but dim 29-year-old Freddie Imbrossi (Pico Alexander). However, no matter whom Atalanta marries, dates, or sleeps with, she can't stop screaming Barry's name during sex. And when she enlists him to help sell her mansion, their long-standing feud might finally come to a head.
Shanley throws everything and the kitchen sink into this 100-minute comedy, so much so that it's nigh impossible to determine what greater meaning he's trying to transmit. Is he contemporizing the Greek myth of Atalanta, the virgin huntress who can outrun any man and agrees to marry the first suitor who can beat her in a race? Is it a commentary on the battle of the sexes in the age of the silent Donald Trump voter? (A plethora of "How could you vote for Trump?" jokes are carelessly scattered throughout, earning easy laughs.) Or are Atalanta and Barry a riff on Beatrice and Benedick, whose witty banter is certain to lead to romance?
With the cast (rounded out by Mary Testa as Barry's mother, Fausta) and creative team Shanley has assembled (John Lee Beatty for four different opulent sets, William Ivey Long for character-defining costumes, Peter Kaczorowski for summery lighting, and Obadah Eaves for lilting Greek-influenced music), The Portuguese Kid should be better than it is. A director with a stronger hand than the playwright's would have helped modulate pacing (the production starts at 100 miles per hour and doesn't let up) and deepen the performances (it's hard to create well-rounded characters when there's nothing below the surface).
In their leading roles, Alexander and Scott are often hilarious yet occasionally hit by the dramatic longueurs of the text when they're required to go deeper and don't have any subtext to play with. Scott is a natural comedienne who finds deliciously outrageous notes to hit as a vapid, high-energy, man-eating Atalanta. Alexander uses his nine seasons as George Costanza to his advantage, creating a character that's drawn from the same petty, self-loathing cloth. Aimee Carrero is sexy and sharp-tongued as his mismatched wife, while Pico Alexander is dashing but dumb as Atalanta's new beau. Testa's bluntly hilarious performance is arguably the highlight of the show, even if her character is only tenuously connected to the plot.
The Portuguese Kid isn't a great play, and it's certainly not on par with Shanley's two most substantial works, the ethics drama Doubt and the rom-com Moonstruck. But it's definitely a crowd pleaser: Once you check your brain at the door, if you're eager to laugh, you'll happily lap up the over-the-top comedic circumstances, no matter how far-fetched they are.