Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of the world premiere of NAPOLI, BROOKLYN at Long Wharf Theatre
Through March 12th
My mother was one of nine children in a big, Catholic-Italian family, so I was raised around an extended family that endeavored to keep certain traditions intact (pizza Fridays, pasta Sundays). When I had the opportunity to see the world premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn, about an immigrant Italian family struggling to survive financial, cultural, and social pressures, there was a great deal to which I could relate: Mama cooking in the kitchen listening to Mario Lanza and other Italian music; my mother slipping into a Neapolitan dialect at times; her praying with rosary beads; and plenty of Italian cuss words. Fortunately, there were other things to which I could not relate – the extreme dysfunctionality of the Muscolino family, although I am sure both of my parents growing up during the Depression era faced common situations and hurdles akin to those of the characters.
Napoli, Brooklyn is a riveting look at a family in transition and turmoil. Nic Muscolino was a stowaway on a boat to America. His wife, Luda, also was an immigrant. They married and settled in a melting pot section of Brooklyn and raised three daughters: Tina, Vita, and Francesca. It’s 1960 and the three daughters are coming of age as is the country. Indeed, the country has recovered from WWII and is in a state of relative innocence and naivete; poised on the brink of monumental changes that the decade soon would usher in – the Kennedy assassination, racial unrest, the Civil rights Movement, Vietnam, etc.
It is appropriate that the play opens with Luda talking to onions. She refuses to talk to God at this point because she is mad at him or her (although back then God was certainly perceived as masculine). The opening dialogue addressed to her onions encapsulates the themes of the play and adumbrates what is to follow. It’s kind of like Shrek’s “ogres are like onions” speech to donkey (my wife and co-reviewer hates when I use this analogy). Life is like an onion, not because it stinks or makes people cry (as Donkey says) but because it has a lot of layers – good and bad.
Napoli is a highly-layered, acutely nuanced theatrical piece. It’s as if the top layers are peeled back and we become voyeurs looking into the very personal core of this particular family. The three daughters, each one with their special traits inherited from their parents also hide repressed feelings and secrets that, like Mount Vesuvius in the Gulf of Naples, they are ready to erupt and boil over into their seemingly peaceful and normal lives. Of the plethora of issues, themes, and questions that the play arouses, it is ultimately about love — love lost, love gained – forgiveness and redemption.
The action is dark, violent, and even unrelenting at times, but it is nevertheless spellbinding and we cannot look away. It is like the morbid curiosity and rubbernecking that occurs when there is an accident. And speaking of accidents, there is a plane crash at the end of Act I, apparently based on a real-life incident that happened to the playwright’s mother, which forever alters the lives of the Muscolinos. To say any more about the plot would be giving away too much. Napoli, Brooklyn is a play that must be seen and felt.
The playwright, Meghan Kennedy, has crafted a thrilling, stunning depiction of 1960, women fighting against oppression and abuse, to find their own independence and voice and, of course, immigrants seeking streets of gold and a better life and realizing that the dream is nothing like reality. Artistic Director of Long Wharf Theatre and Director of Napoli, Brooklyn, Gordon Edelstein, accomplished his usual brilliant job of taking characters and situations on the written page and making them real, flesh-and-blood creations. The staging and pacing is masterful and completely compelling.
Of course, it helps to have a talented, amazing cast. And such is the case in Napoli, Brooklyn. Alyssa Bresnahan is absolutely wonderful as the matriarch, Luda Muscolino. (I could not find a direct translation of what Luda means in English; I found it originated in Russia and means love of people. In Italian and Albania Leda is usually used instead of Luda.) She brought such great verisimilitude and authenticity to the character. I saw traces of my mother and some of my aunts as well as my mom’s Italian female friends. Her speech to God justifying why she married her husband was simply show-stopping. Equally authentic as the patriarch Nic Muscolino was Jason Kolotouros. He was so good at portraying the abusive, aggressive (as my mother would say gavone), that you just wanted to run up to the stage and kick the merda out of him (excuse my French – I mean Italian). And yet, as in the style of most versatile actors, there were times when he brought a sensitivity and warmth to the role where you said to yourself, “maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all” – for about a minute.
Carolyn Braver is spot-on as Vita (Vita means life in Italian), the strong, self-willed, defiant daughter, but with a thirst for justice and equality. Christina Pumariega was pitch-perfect as Tina, the introverted, repressed (and as my mother would say, slightly stunod) daughter. Her expressions (especially her scowl) and body language were priceless. Her portrayal reminded me of some of my Italian cousins – oops, maybe I shouldn’t have said that (nah, they don’t read my reviews anyway). Her character transition was so good that I did not even recognize her at the after party for opening night. As Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher said, “[t]alent hits a target no one else can hit.” Jordyn DiNatale not only hit the target, but scored a bullseye as the youngest Muscolino daughter, Francesca. She brought the oxymoronic qualities of youthful naivete and aged sagaciousness to the role, and she played it with such energetic zest and vivaciousness that she will be the rising ingénue to watch out for in the future.
Rounding out the melting pot of the cast is Graham Winton as the strong, but sensitive and compassionate neighborhood Irish butcher. I had flashbacks watching his interactions with Luda in the butcher shop back to a time in Yonkers, New York when we would walk down the street to our own Irish butcher; I can still feel the sawdust crunch under my feet. Shirine Babb did a great job with the stereotype-breaking role (for 1960) of Celia Jones, the smart, well-educated African American woman who befriends Tina Muscolino. And last, but not least, Ryann Shane killed it as Connie Duffy, the butcher’s daughter and Francesca’s bff and soulmate. The chemistry between Shane and DiNatale was particularly outstanding.
My bad sometimes for not giving credit to everyone involved in the production because of spatial limitations, but special shout-outs must go to the following: Eugene Lee (Set Design); Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet (Fight Directors) and Stephen Gabis (Dialect Coach). The effects were incredible. Without giving up too much, when the plane hits, it’s like Armageddon!
My mother would always say, “Va fa Napoli.” I am telling you Va Fa Napoli, Brooklyn before it closes.
We need each other, deeper than anyone ever dares to admit even to themselves. I think it is a genetic imperative that we huddle together and hold on to each other. There is no question in my mind that there is nothing else in life, really, than friendship.
— Patch Adams, physician, comedian, social activist, clown, author,
and founder of the Gesundheit! Institute
It just so happens that in the Psychology of Personality class I teach, we’ve recently been talking about psychology pioneer Carl Jung. One of the major tenets of his somewhat mystical theory is that we as humans all are profoundly connected by the very nature of our species; further, that our collective histories are part of a shared unconscious. This has been called “cultural residue” by others – the essential parts of our culture and our humanness rooted deeply in our minds, all of which serve to guide us. It’s something akin to a psychic cyberspace.
Jung also was heavily influenced by quantum physics – and of the idea that humans, like particles or objects, are entangled; thus they cannot be described independent of each other. Einstein called it a “spooky action,” whereby people who ever have come into contact with one another never completely separate from that point forward. They establish an intimate connection which can be emotional, powerful, all-encompassing, and permanent.
And while these concepts may in many ways be the general essence of relationships, especially the latter, they also are critical aspects of storytelling and theatre – for whether it’s a tale of real people or something conceived in the imagination of a playwright, the audience may be forever touched, forever changed; and that is altogether mighty and enduring.
And so it was when I attended the world premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn, a poignant drama by Meghan Kennedy and directed Gordon Edelstein at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, CT, that these thoughts flowed through my gray matter. This electrifying story of a first-generation, Italian-American family’s quest for survival both individually and as a unit, is set against the changing social and cultural tides of 1960s New York as well as a devastating accident in their Park Slope, Brooklyn neighborhood. The Muscolinos invite you into their home, but should you stay too long, no one remains on their best behavior; you’ll get all the bad with the good. Along with phenomenal home-cooked meals there also will be considerable tension and discord.
I must begin by saying his cast is outstanding. Each of them portrays a character who wishes for something more, something different, as if they are bursting out of the skin which binds them. Luda (a sublime Alyssa Bresnahan) is the matriarch who not only cooks but talks to her allium accoutrements – onions – which in many ways are symbolic of Mama herself: sweet, earthy, spicy, layered, and they sure can make you cry. She loves her family and is fiercely protective, yet is a martyr, and in many ways is blind to what is directly in front of her. Patriarch Nic (a convincingly detestable Jason Kolotouros) is hot-blooded, hot-headed, and prone to violent outbursts. He rules the family with an unrelenting iron fist. Their daughters, eldest 26-year-old Tina (Christina Pumariega delivers an exceptionally moving performance with a spot-on accent) is timid, conscientious, and compliant but yearns for more than grueling work in a box factory. Twenty-year-old Vita (a passionate Carolyn Braver) was born with the fire of her parents yet they attempt to squelch it by banishing her to a convent when she stands up to her father’s cruel authority. Francesca (endearingly and spiritedly portrayed by Jordyn DiNatale) is a feisty 16 and coming to terms with her budding womanhood while exploring her sexual identity. Like meeting new people, each of the characters tugged at my empathetic core and as it stirred into action, I was engulfed by their laughter, their pain, their joys, and their losses.
Along with the Muscolinos, we also meet the Duffys; father Albert (a compassionate and gentle Graham Winton) and his daughter Connie, skillfully played by Ryann Shane. The Irish-American duo, also a first generation family, are warm and kind, juxtaposed against the brashness of the Muscolino clan and Nic’s ruthless violence. And finally, African-American co-worker and friend to Tina, Shirine Babb’s Celia Jones, is an understated yet dynamic force bringing to light not only the importance of friendship and support, but also issues of insensitivity, judgment, prejudice, and discrimination – relevant not only to the time period (1960s) but also very much to today.
One doesn’t have to be even one one-hundredth Italian to see the parallels of the human condition, to sense the overwhelming power of family, or to understand the plethora of challenges facing American immigrants. One only needs to see, hear, and feel the muscle of theatre to be drawn into the Muscolinos’ lives. Told in a multiple short scenes, deftly strung together and tightly directed, one also may see likenesses to their own wants and desires, hopes and fears, and trials and tribulations in Napoli, Brooklyn.
A unique and modest set design by Eugene Lee and excellent lighting design by Ben Stanton allows the actors to move about the stage as if entering and exiting new locations in the blink of an eye. Jane Greenwood’s costume design is spot-on, evoking the feeling of time and place. Fitz Patton is responsible for a masterful (if not also fittingly shocking at times) sound design. Fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet take the Muscolinos through multiple shudderingly violent rounds when Nic’s outbursts turn physical. Kudos also to Tom Watson for hair and wig design; Tommy Kurzman for makeup design; Stephen Gabis as dialect coach; Peter Wolf as production stage manager; Amy Patricia Stern as assistant stage manager; and Carrie Gardner for casting.
It always is exciting to have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of new works. The themes in Napoli, Brooklyn are the very same as those issues we continue to face in the present. It is beautiful, riveting, powerful, and timeless…just like all human relationships. Thank you Gordon Edelstein and Long Wharf Theatre for another thought-provoking theatrical experience.
I am saddened by how people treat one another and how we are so shut off from one another and how we judge one another, when the truth is, we are all one connected. We are all from the same exact molecules.
– Ellen DeGeneres