& & by Michael Bowen & & & &
Even murder can be funny -- if, that is, the characters are broad enough and the atmosphere harmless enough to make the audience feel secure from the effects of any violence. Tom Dulack's Breaking Legs, now at the Lake City Playhouse, intermixes two distinct worlds. On the one hand, we have theater people, who've been known to tear a passion to tatters, and, on the other, Mafia people, who do pretty much the same to their debtors. The first act, for example, ends with a poor guy just outside the restaurant window being... well, let's just say that it sure looked like it hurt. And yet spectators howled with glee at the gangsters' business methods. They whack the guy, then they have some calamari. It's that kind of a play.
Tedious pacing, however, undermined the play's comic potential. One hopes that during the run, the cast will learn to avoid their routine of delivering the line, then doing the stage business, then waiting, then delivering the next line, then doing the next bit of business.
In a play in which Daddy is forever ordering more veal parmesan and a nice antipasto for the guys in the shiny ties and pinstripe suits -- oh, and honey, could you bring us a nice Chianti? -- there's a whole lot of pouring and toasting and table-clearing going on. I thought I'd bolt if anyone else ordered more vino, because that would mean another lengthy wait until the next wisecrack could even go into a wind-up.
Dropped lines led to a couple of long, anxious pauses in which everyone waited, spaghetti in mouth, for someone -- anyone! -- to speak the next line. Really, really long pauses.
Not as long, however, as the two interminable second-act scene changes. If I want to watch a solitary waiter schlepp glasses around aimlessly while Sinatra and Dean Martin croon songs of love, I'll go to my local pizzeria and at least have some real spumoni as consolation. This play should crackle with the racketeers' rimshots and gun shots; instead, it stagnated, the second act especially.
As Terence, the English professor who's fairly desperate to get his latest play financed -- even by made men -- Cary Allison would suddenly turn on the romance or the embarrassment, his enthusiasm for his play or his horniness. Too often his acting seemed forced. As the restaurant owner's daughter, Lea Conner Dudley could afford to make her end of the flirtatious foot-rubbing scenes more enticing; at least she got the slow burn of resentment against Dad just right.
First-time director Stacey Jean Barron forfeited visual interest by allowing her cast to do too much sitting around and talking. Along with Brad Barron, however, she deserves credit for the set, which looks and feels like the interior of that Italian place on the corner (the one that just happens to be run by felons).
There were other bright spots. It was a nice touch beforehand to bring out cheerful waiter Alphonse (Jordan Gookin), at the ready with towel over his arm, welcoming us to Graziano's in the thick accents of a true paisan. With a nicely understated performance as Tino, the hit man who chomps cigars and spends most of his time staring sullenly at strangers, Doug Jacobs is in sharp and effective contrast to the rest of the cast. Because he's so taciturn, it's comical when he displays his idea of great theater by belting out a show tune.
As Mike, the gravel-voiced Mafia don, Carr Christian Mancini chews both pasta and scenery, stealing several scenes. When he tells the professor that "greed is a terrible thing," simultaneously we cringe at the threat and laugh at the irony.
Dulack, himself an English professor at UConn, has been produced both on Broadway and off -- and perhaps even off-off, a concept that mystified some of the wiseguys, hilariously. His play makes some of the same points repetitively: mobsters prefer musicals, didn't learn much in school and usually affect not to be hungry (though a bit of the tortellini would be nice). Still, a raucous opening-night crowd broke into spontaneous song even before the lights went down, and folks were clearly having a good time rooting for their local favorites in the cast.
True to the form of comedy, Dulack's alter ego overcomes a few gaps in age and intelligence and gets the girl. He pulls it off, even if it does require a little arm-twisting on the very guys whose arms are dangerous to twist. In the finale, the central couple outwits the crooks, ensuing declarations of true love move even men of the underworld to show their vulnerable side and some audience members even rose to deliver standing applause. Now, that's "amore."