Watching Chazz Palminteri travel back to his childhood stomping ground on the corner of 187th and Belmont Avenue, New York, is not unlike listening in on a bunch of Italians as they wax nostalgic, during a game of bocci or an afternoon at the barbershop, about the old neighborhood and the colorful characters that once populated it. Charming or chilling, the recollections in “A Bronx Tale” are touched by affection, sentimentality and the poignant distance of time. If the solo show is not exactly robust theater, it nonetheless gets by on the writer-actor’s strong personal connection to the semi-autobiographical material.
Palminteri plays 18 characters in the show, which was first performed Off Broadway in 1989 and later in Los Angeles before being adapted for the screen in Robert DeNiro’s directing debut.
In the almost two decades since, stories of tough neighborhoods full of violence and racism, and of low-level crime bosses and kids who come of age under their wings have proliferated in more or less vivid incarnations on movie screens and cable. But while this familiarity somewhat softens the dramatic edge of Palminteri’s engaging snapshot, it’s the intervening explosion of multicharacter solo shows that dulls its impact.
Occasionally, someone has struck upon the right ingredients to make a one-person show click on Broadway: “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” had the star’s acid-dipped confessional style; Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” had a shrewd formula of Jews, jazz, baseball and family. More often, however, these intimate yackfests are constrained by their all-tell-no-show form, limitations laid bare by deluxe presentation at a top ticket price nudging $100.
Jerry Zaks doesn’t solve the problem of injecting theatricality into the material here. Aside from John Gromada’s occasional underscoring and a flash in the final stretch of police sirens and a fiery blaze courtesy of Paul Gallo’s lighting, it’s easy to forget there’s a director on board. But Zaks does have the sense to stay out of Palminteri’s way and allow this hard-working, big-hearted performer to lose himself — and probably a good part of his audience, old geezers in particular — in his characters and story.
Palminteri’s pride in his roots is evident from the start as he strolls onto James Noone’s slick set: a Bronx street corner, a stoop, a local bar and an alleyway where Doo Wop crooners Dion and the Belmonts started singing. Talk of Mickey Mantle, JFK and the Cold War places the scene in 1960, but the focus is less on a time than a man: the number one guy in the neighborhood, Sonny.
Channeling 9-year-old alter ego Calogero, later known as C, Palminteri chronicles the divided loyalties and conflicting influences that positioned him through adolescence between his principled bus driver father Lorenzo and Mob heavy Sonny. When he witnesses Sonny shoot down a man on the street but keeps silent with the cops, Calogero earns the paternalistic thug’s trust.
Palminteri has an appealing, easy way with an anecdote, a fine ear for the macho rhythms of Italo-American vernacular and a good eye for character detail, even if his constant gesticulating, shifting body language and malleable facial expressions do seem forcefully cranked up to make a talky text more physically dynamic.
One of the actor’s best film performances was as a brawny gangster with a brain and a creative streak in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway.” A similar duality is harnessed here, negotiating quick switches between glowering menace, wiseguy nonchalance, wide-eyed innocence and the indulgent detachment of a direct-address narrator.
But despite the detail and agility of his performance, Palminteri’s writing feels trapped here in a form that prohibits it from fully coming alive. The arc of the play is well shaped, taking C through formative years with twin father figures, his blossoming confidence as a young man in the protective shadow of a local big gun, his first romance, his ideological awakening to social injustice and the bittersweet loss that brings him closer again to his father. Yet despite its origin as a stage piece, the show plays like a distilled short story or screenplay rather than something that functions as a virtuoso stage vehicle for a single performer.
It’s mildly entertaining and impressively acted but never quite takes the leap from nostalgia to evocative narrative.