Baby-faced Ralph Macchio returns quietly to the stage in this modest production of a new play by Arje Shaw. The Soho Playhouse's small stage hosts "Magic Hands Freddy," a dark comedy about an Italian-American masseur who discovers too late that his seemingly placid life is rife with betrayal. Despite Michael Rispoli's charming performance in the title role, this uneven production teeters dangerously toward the amateurish.

Baby-faced Ralph Macchio returns quietly to the stage in this modest production of a new play by Arje Shaw. The Soho Playhouse’s small stage hosts “Magic Hands Freddy,” a dark comedy about an Italian-American masseur who discovers too late that his seemingly placid life is rife with betrayal. Despite Michael Rispoli’s charming performance in the title role, this uneven production teeters dangerously toward the amateurish.

The action unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, highlighting the pivotal moments of Freddy’s life. The first half focuses on the strength of Freddy’s love for brother Cal (Macchio) and his sunny attitude toward life in the face of a frosty wife and sick daughter.

At the end of the first act, Cal dies in a car accident. While sifting through his brother’s possessions, Freddy learns he and wife Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia) had been having an affair — and that Cal is the biological father of Freddy’s daughter, April. Maria has already returned to Italy, unable to bear the pain of Cal’s death.

Shaw’s script is filled with lively, fluid dialogue and clever lines that keep the play afloat. (Shaw penned Holocaust drama “The Gathering,” a flop on Broadway in 2001.) Cal asks his brother, “Did you ever hear of unconditional love?” Freddy replies, “No. I only give with strings. I am a string instrument.”

Rispoli’s charisma and comic skill help gloss over the less-realized aspects of the production. He successfully pulls off challenges that could stand out uncomfortably — strolling down the aisle confiding to the audience, or delivering lines like “By grounding myself to the Earth’s core, I draw power from within its hot molten center,” from a moving meditation that bookends the play.

Ed Chemy provides humor and skill in his many supporting roles, though at times he forgoes clear choices for bold ones.

But Macchio’s stiff perf as Cal gives little sense of his inner turmoil. The character has, after all, betrayed his munificent brother and fathered a child he cannot claim. Macchio presumably chose to accentuate Cal’s repression and disconnection as defense mechanisms, but they also obscure the humanity of his character.

Similarly, LaVecchia’s portrayal of Maria lacks an emotional bridge connecting the passionate young woman we see in flashbacks to the cold housewife she becomes. The woman who now holds court in the kitchen as a bitter, dowdy housewife bears no resemblance to the passionate, playful girl of the early scenes.

Some of the limitations in the perfs can be attributed to Shaw and director Rebecca Taylor’s choice to focus primarily on Freddy. Although Taylor is successful in drawing out the possibilities in this role, making Freddy the only sympathetic, fully drawn character backfires. In order for the secrets revealed at the play’s finale to have any power, the viewer needs to feel the suffering of all three participants.

Magic Hands Freddy

Soho Playhouse, New York; 214 seats; $50

Production

A Dana Matthow, Steve Alpert and Kenneth Greiner presentation of a play in two acts by Arje Shaw. Directed by Rebecca Taylor.

Creative

Sets and lighting, Jason Sturm; costumes, Yvonne De Moravia; stage manager, Adam Grosswirth. Opened Feb. 19, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 24. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Freddy - Michael Rispoli Calvin - Ralph Macchio Maria - Antoinette LaVecchia Sal, others - Ed Chemaly

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