Monday, March 28, 2016

"a room of my own" - Where you don't always get what you want

By Judd Hollander

Who knew an endless stream of profanity could be so hilarious? All it takes is the proper character(s) to say the words; lines delivered perfectly straight and a situation that beautifully combines the humorous with the heartbreaking. Case in point: Charles Messina’s a room of my own, running at the Abingdon Theatre Company through March 13.

It's Christmas, 1979. When disco was king, the world hadn’t yet heard of AIDS, and a one-room apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village wasn't always the ideal family living space. Which is where we find the Morellis. Peter (Johnny Tammaro), the family patriarch, is unable to work due to a heart attack he suffered several years earlier, at the age of forty. His wife Dotty (Joli Tribuzio), who works in a bakery, is the family breadwinner. She also skimming a little money from the job, funds which go to help paying the family bills. There's also kids Jeannie (Kendra Jain) and Carl (Nico Bustamante) - the latter billed in the show program as "Little Carl". All of whom sleep in the same room on two pullout couches. Living upstairs is Dotty's gay brother, Jackie (Mario Cantone). 

The story is told from the viewpoint of the Adult Carl (Ralph Macchio), who's approximately the same age now his father was then. A professional writer, Carl is penning a play about his family and this particular Christmas - which he calls the "Christmas of Atari". The elder Carl wanting to craft the past as he remembers it to be, or rather, as he would very much prefer it to be. However, his younger self has other ideas. Little Carl insisting his adult counterpart not only write down what actually happened, but also now be a witness to the events as they are once again played out.

Crammed together in a space that's little more than "a dump", as stated by Dotty at one point, Little Carl's greatest wish is to have his own room. Something quite clearly far beyond the family’s meager resources. The Morelli financial situation being a particularly sore point for Peter, as he was apparently cut out of his wealthy father’s will. Peter's long-estranged sister Jean (Liza Vann) now controlling the family money. The two siblings having not spoken in decades. A good part of the reason for this being that Peter has both a short temper and a streak of stubbornness a mile wide. 

Peter's perennially lit fuse pales in comparison to Dotty's. His wife continually going off on rants at the drop of her hat. The tirades ranging from what goes on at her job, discussing the attitude of one of Little Carl's teachers, or just yelling at her children for whatever the reason of the moment happens to be. All this done with a blue word coming out of her mouth almost every other second. Though to be fair, her kids give as good as they get in that regard.

Also holding his own against Dotty is her brother Jackie, who wanders in from time to time to help raise matters to a higher boiling point. Or alternatively, to try to cool things down.

Without a doubt, a room of my own has all the elements for a television sitcom, and at times actually starts to feel like one - especially when Mario Cantone's character is added to the mix. Fortunately, for the most part Messina, doing double duty here as writer and director, manages to get past the pitfall of cute situations and easy answers via the strong realism he injects into the story. Thus making one feel they know the various characters quite intimately. Examples include Dotty and Peter's realization they'll never be able to move to a place where their son can have his own room; Peter pulling a trick on Little Carl which quickly backfires into something not at all funny; and the young Carl, all of ten years old, asking Jackie why the older man has never married.

The point Messina comes back to time and again, and one the younger Carl forces his older self to come to terms with, is that while the "good old days" weren't always fun and games, there was also a lot going on that you, being a child, were probably never aware of. Such how parents would sacrifice their own needs to make sure their children got, if not everything they may have wanted, then certainly everything they needed. Things like having food to eat, clothing to wear and a place to live. Basically, a room of my own presents a twist on the American Dream. Where parents try to make sure their children get a better life then they themselves have - even if they have to break or bend the law a bit to ensure that.

True, the writing is a bit lightweight at points, with such elements as Peter's penchant for gambling mentioned only in passing and then just as quickly dropped. Also not explored as much as it could have been was Peter's relationship with his late father. Yet even though Messina is only concentrating on a very brief span of time (basically the period just before Christmas until the New Year) he still is able to provide a good idea of the feelings and emotions that drive the characters in his story. Most importantly, he makes one want to learn more about these people and how their lives eventually turn out.

Also good are the references linking the story to the time depicted - and yes, there really was a Crazy Eddie on Eighth Street. Though the Guy Lombardo comment may be a little off. Lombardo died in 1977, two years before the time in which the play is set, though his orchestra did play together for another couple of years. There's also a plethora of disco music booming out as one enters to theatre to help set the mood for what is to follow.

Tribuzio is excellent as Dotty, always ready with a cutting remark, angry glance, stream of cuss words, or bearing her soul to someone she hasn't seen in years, as the situation requires. Her performance is also definitely one to remember when awards are being handed out. Tammaro is good as Peter, a man trying to do the best for his family, though like his wife, he long ago stopped trying to get rid of the very large chip on his shoulder. Each of the two preferring to eek out little victories against the system whenever, wherever and from whoever they can. Cantone is fine as Jackie, who more than holds his own against the family angst, but who clearly has issues where his own personal life is concerned. Jain and Bustamante mesh well as the kids. Both emotionally older than their years, but still able to emit gasps of childlike wonder when something touches them. Macchio is fine as the elder Carl and narrator of the story, though he's kind of one dimensional throughout. He continually complaining to the other characters that they're not performing in the manner he wants them to.

As a director, Messina's concept is strong throughout. He never lets the play stop moving forward, but also successfully slows it down at points to allow a good blending of drama, comedy and pathos. Brian Dudkiewicz's set of Morelli home presents a good example of a place that feels homey, crammed, somewhat dirty and totally lived in.

There’s a moment towards the end of the play, when, as the family is watching the New Year's Eve festivities, Dotty and Peter do something they haven’t done the entire show. They kiss. The family seen in a rare moment of contentment when all is right with the world. As memories go, this is certainly not a bad one at all.

Funny, harsh and touching, a room of my own touches all the bases in this theatrical home run of family life.

a room of my own 
written and directed by Charles Messina

Featuring: Ralph Macchio (Adult Carl Morelli), Nico Baustamante (Little Carl Morelli), Joli Tribuzio (Dotty Morelli), Johnny Tammaro (Peter Morelli), Kendra Jain (Jeannie Morelli), Mario Cantone (Jackie), Liza Vann (Jean Morelli)

Scenic Design: Brian Dudkiewicz

Lighting Design: Michael A. Megliola

Costume Design: Catherine Siracusa

Sound Design: Ian Wehrle

Props Design: Addison Heeren

Production Stage Manager: Deidre Works

Production Manager: Ashley Zednick

Casting: Lori Malkin

Press Representative: Bob Lasko

a room of my own
Abingdon Theatre
312 West 36th Street
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Closed: March 13, 2016

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