The action of John C. Picardi’s “The Sweepers” is restricted to two tiny, adjacent concrete back yards in Boston’s Italian North End, but its themes sprawl, encompassing home-front tension as World War II is ending, the shared past of childhood friends and a younger generation’s transitioning from Old World mores. This overstuffed calzone of a melodrama — part of a projected 10-play cycle — is tailored to audiences who like their plots heavy and characters outsized, at whatever cost to plausibility.
Act one, in which the titular sweeping trio of lonely matrons lay out the exposition with a trowel, plays like “Golden Girls, The Early Years,” with Mary (Valerie Perri) as brusque Dorothy and Dotty (Donna Ponterotto) as dotty, Spoonerism-prone Rose. (After 23 years of Mussolini ruling the old country, she’s yet to learn the word “fascist,” if you can buy that.) Bella (Susan Giosa) stands in for vain, man-hungry Blanche, leaning back so far with hand on hip you wait for her to pick up a handkerchief in her teeth.
Though Mary and Dotty are nervous for their fellows in the service, Picardi is mostly interested in Bella, long abandoned by her Irish husband (yes, he drank) and now living alone with her 4F attorney son (Jamie Hobert), who’s about to wed Karen (Danielle Vernengo), a lace-curtain lass from Beacon Hill. Bundling newspapers and scrounging junk for the war effort, the ladies spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the “wedding sheet,” to be hung out the morning after as proof of the bride’s purity.
Much of the talk is cringe-inducing, but Picardi periodically picks up on something fresh and well-observed, such as Dotty’s ashamed unwillingness to bring shell-shocked husband Eddie home from the V.A. Hospital. Helmer caryn desai (sic) applies a somewhat crude sitcom style, keeping the behavior light and lively although rarely suggesting these women have been laboring under war’s burden for three long years.
Pretentiousness, however, rears its head after intermission. Following the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the anticipated Japanese surrender sets off bombshells among the ladies themselves. As long-withheld truths are revealed — and that sheet is elevated to life-and-death stakes — Picardi calls for over the top emoting (given excessive rein by desai).
Thesps give it their all, but play’s modes of symbolist tragedy and vulgar farce simply don’t mesh.
Real-life newlyweds Hobert and Vernengo carry off acting honors through simple sincerity and careful modulation, steering Karen’s attempts to cut Sonny’s apron strings refreshingly away from cliche.
Vernengo carries an extra burden in scribe’s choice to make Karen nominally Italian (and an immigrant’s daughter) yet puzzlingly clueless about cultural traditions. Either making the daughter-in-law a genuine Yankee, or having her alternative sense of ethnicity clash openly with Bella’s, would make more sense than this thin, unconvincing hybrid.
Show’s strongest suit is its production values, Bill Georges’ lighting exquisitely differentiating bawdy day from moody night on Matthew D. Egan’s detailed set. Though seeming more off the rack than well-worn, Kim DeShazo’s costumes keep us firmly rooted in 1945 throughout.