Review: ‘Italian Funerals and Other Festive Occasions’

"The Glass Menagerie" meets "The Godfather." John Miranda's autobiographical play wants to be an opera but succeeds only in being a spaghetti sitcom, and no matter how much Puccini and Verdi you underscore it with, you can't raise the trite to tragic. This Italian-American immigrant drama has its funny moments and its moving moments, but mainly it is shamelessly sentimental.

“The Glass Menagerie” meets “The Godfather.” John Miranda’s autobiographical play wants to be an opera but succeeds only in being a spaghetti sitcom, and no matter how much Puccini and Verdi you underscore it with, you can’t raise the trite to tragic. This Italian-American immigrant drama has its funny moments and its moving moments, but mainly it is shamelessly sentimental.

The structural device is the standard memory-play narrator, the guilt-ridden grown son who has come home for Christmas to visit Mama, now old and afflicted with spells of dementia, cared for by his exhausted and resentful sister, Brigida. The play flashes back and forth in time — sometimes as the mother’s mind wanders to Christmases past, sometimes as John remembers the boy he was.

Time becomes a parade of deaths: Grandma, Dad, Brigida’s teenage daughter Andrea, who overdoses, Uncle Dom and Aunt Mary, both murdered by the Mafia. The situations are sad and messy, but the shifts are even more confusing than the frequent scene changes. Everybody speaks Italian (rather too much), everybody loves opera, everybody sings and almost everybody has a comical Italian accent.

Tom Teti as the grown John Giuseppe does what he can to make his role three-dimensional, Emmanuel Carrera as the 12-year-old Johnny has a lovely soprano, Carla Belver in the thankless role of the beleaguered Brigida is very convincing, and Mildred Clinton is often charming as Mama. Irma St. Paule is a hoot as Grandma the witch. But because they are playing stock characters caught in stock situations, none of the considerable acting ability onstage matters much.

The set design by John Iacovelli is both cluttered and vulgar (giant, crude paintings of crucifixion scenes, a hunk of a huge gilt picture frame that is lowered and raised willy-nilly). Director Scott Reiniger’s stooping to “Away in the Manger” was, to me, the last straw.

Italian Funerals and Other Festive Occasions

Production

PHILADELPHIA A Walnut Street Theater presentation of a play in two acts by John Miranda. Developed and directed by Scott Reiniger.

Crew

Sets, John Iacovelli; costumes, Gail Cooper-Hecht; lighting, F. Mitchell Dana; projections, Troy A. Martin-O'Shia; sound, Lewis Mead; managing director, Den Wesler; production manager, Billings Lapierre. Executive director, Bernard Havard. Opened, reviewed Jan. 18, 1995, at the Walnut Street Theater; 1,052 seats; $ 38 top. Running time: 2 HOURS,15 MIN.

With

John ... Tom Teti Little Johnny ... Emmanuel Carrera Young Mama/ Roaslie ... Christine Vancore Brigida ... Carla Belver Mama ... Mildred Clinton Grandmother ... Irma St. Paule Dad ... Patrick DeSantis Uncle Dom ... Fil Formicola Aunt Mary ... Emilise Aleandri Andrea ... Maura Russo Fatty Townsend ... Tom McCarthy Big Man ... Carl Don
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