Two Gentlemen of Corona” could be classified as “The Sopranos” meets “Dancing With the Stars,” since wiseguy relationships and wittily incorporated dance moves are major contributors to its charm. Whatever its category, this world premiere is a gem, a thoroughly entertaining and delightfully directed comedy that affectionately spoofs mob mentality and builds empathy for its criminals and killers at the same time. Author Jim Geoghan’s “Only Kidding” ran Off Broadway for 500 performances, and “Corona” has the potential to repeat that feat.
Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” establishes the time as early ’60s, and Joey Brocco (Adrian R’Mante), a small-time hood, dances alone to the music in a diner hangout, while his thuggish hit man cohort Carmine (Chris Damiano) teases him about these rapturous solo moves. Their friendship is so tight that both agree, if the time came for them to be murdered, they would only want the other to perform this gory chore.
While Phil (Phillip C. Curry), the diner’s African-American proprietor, looks on and amusingly reiterates that he “didn’t see nothin’,” Joey and Carmine’s boss, John (Sam Ingraffia), along with his mutinous moll, Angelina (C.B. Spencer), enter the restaurant. The two underlings hilariously flatter their vain, narcissistic employer (“your picture is right between the pope and Frank Sinatra”), persuading him to let them sell souvenirs at the upcoming 1964 World’s Fair — a scheme they hope will bring wealth and make them “kings.”
Geoghan waits just the right amount of time to usher in a problem that threatens to capsize these lofty plans — Joey’s attraction to Angelina, and the mutual love of dance that stimulates and heightens their attraction.
R’Mante and Spencer are a hot pair, with such consuming chemistry that you forget they’re actors and buy completely into the growing love story. Their big dance — to Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — is a sensational scene, marvelously choreographed by Cate Caplin and deepened by Lisa D. Katz’s lighting.
Every portrayal punches the right note. As Joey, R’Mante conveys a basic decency, playing a person who doesn’t favor ripping off his employer because “I like to look at the East River, not live at the bottom of it.” He has an eloquent moment when John abuses Angelina, and he torments himself in a monologue for not defending her. When he says to Carmine, “you call us kings? We ain’t kings,” you know you’re in the presence of a splendid actor.
Damiano’s Carmine is the obtuse, petty-thief opposite. Whether sashaying around with self-admiration in Shon LeBlanc’s gloriously gaudy leopard tux jacket and red cummerbund, or rattling off graphically gross details of mob hits, he gets all his laughs without sacrificing a shred of authenticity.
The most politically incorrect dialogue — which could use a little toning down — stems from Ingraffia’s crime boss, but the words are in character for this nattily dressed low life. He makes the most of a clever shtick, revealing him as frantically squeamish about the killings he orders.
Spencer’s Angelina rates special kudos for rethinking and improving on an old-fashioned part. Her role suggests Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday,” the uncouth birdbrain seeking to educate herself, in this case claiming proudly that she’s reading ” ‘Increase Your Word Power in 90 Days’ by Random House.” Unlike stereotyped dumb broads who traditionally adopt high-pitched, screechy voices, Spencer speaks in a normal range. She sustains her New Yawk accent perfectly, and her vocal reserve makes it easy to stay on her side and feel protective.
Rounding out the cast, Curry is faultless as the black man with a relaxed acceptance of mob bigotry, and Michael Zemenick, nervous supplier of the souvenirs, nails the panic of a man who belatedly begins to comprehend that his customers are mafia members.
The show’s climax is satisfying, although it goes down too smoothly and could use one more twist. A surprise development would terminate any trace of patness and put the finishing touches on a play that delivers winningly in every other area.