Review: ‘Johnny Boy’

"Johnny Boy," an honest, beautifully written drama, should become a firm favorite with regional theaters throughout the country. Centering on a New York Jewish family during 1955's legendary Yankees-Dodgers faceoff, this Falcon Theater world premiere -- Jeff Mandels' first full-length play -- establishes him as a forceful, perceptive playwright.

“Johnny Boy,” an honest, beautifully written drama, should become a firm favorite with regional theaters throughout the country. Centering on a New York Jewish family during 1955’s legendary Yankees-Dodgers faceoff, this Falcon Theater world premiere — Jeff Mandels’ first full-length play — establishes him as a forceful, perceptive playwright.

“I love baseball,” announces narrator Paul (Rami Malek) before Mandels’ plot flashes back to Paul’s mother Dotty (Stephanie Venditto) and her garrulous aunt Pearl (Barbara Gruen), a widow who supports Dotty and her family to some extent and rattles on relentlessly about a lost love.

Their conversation provides a humorous if lengthy setup until teenage Paul and his wheelchair-bound younger brother Johnny (Richard Alan Brown) take center stage and we witness the bitterness Paul feels because his parents — particularly his father Lee (J. David Krassner) — guiltily spoil and favor their handicapped son.

Director Arnold Margolin draws eloquent portrayals from his cast, and he has the advantage of a subtle and superior ensemble. As Dotty, Stephanie Venditto totally bypasses Jewish mother cliches, even when overprotectively urging 16-year-old Paul to look both ways before crossing a street. Her characterization focuses on perpetual anxiety about losing Paul while lying to herself that the desperately ill Johnny will miraculously recover and go to college.

Our sympathy is intensified when it grows evident that Dotty’s hopes are delusions, especially after the sweetly childlike Johnny asks her, “Am I going to die soon?” Richard Alan Brown walks a fine line between wisdom and boyishness and plays his part without lump-in-the-throat self-pity.

The most electrifying clash in the production occurs between Malek’s Paul and Krassner’s Lee. Lee is incensed when Paul stumbles home, bloodied and beaten from a street fight, and director Margolin doesn’t back away from the violence of a man smashing his son’s face after the boy has already been brutalized.

It’s a tribute to Krassner that his violence registers as an expression of frustrated love instead of villainous insensitivity. Despair is the keynote of Krassner’s interpretation, and it’s clear Lee adores his son even as he boils over with rage.

Malek proves a worthy opponent, and Paul’s initial refusal to hit his father indicates character rather than cowardice. Thesp has the ability to be both vulnerable and powerful, demonstrating extensive range in a delicate scene with a young girl, Fern (Tania Raymonde), who invites him to a birthday party. A few elements could be strengthened.

Although reference is made to Dotty and Lee’s wrenching money battles, we don’t observe enough of their struggle to feel the endless agony. The character of Aunt Pearl is entertainingly showy, heightened by Barbara Gruen’s sense of comedy, but she remains a creation that requires revelatory script surprises. Mandels’ climax dissipates after trailing past the Dodgers one-time Series victory, utilizing excessive narration to wrap up plot threads.

These are minor flaws that fade when Paul says, “I’m tired of helping you all the time,” and Johnny later murmurs wistfully, “All I ever wanted was to play baseball with you.”

Keith Mitchell’s set poignantly paints a world in which a family maintains a frail hold on middle class living, and Robert Arturo Ramirez vividly reproduces the sounds of the big game. Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes are suitably understated, adding to a sense of authenticity that makes us feel we’re in the presence of flesh and blood family members rather than actors.

Johnny Boy

Falcon Theater, Los Angeles; 130 seats; $37.50

Production

A Falcon Theatre presentation of a play in two acts by Jeff Mandels. Directed by Arnold Margolin.

Creative

Sets, Keith Mitchell; costumes, Denitsa Bliznakova; lighting, Jeremy Pivnick; sound, Robert Arturo Ramirez; stage managers, Sue Karutz, Erika H. Sellin. Opened April 3, 2004; reviewed April 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Paul - Rami Malek Dotty - Stephanie Venditto Pearl - Barbara Gruen Johnny - Richard Alan Brown Lee - J. David Krassner Fern - Tania Raymonde
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