There’s a lot of professional pizzazz assembled on the Manhattan Theater Club stage for “The Portuguese Kid,” the world premiere of the new play written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. There’s a strong cast and some high-end design work from John Lee Beatty (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Peter Kaczorpwski (lighting), but all of it is wasted on material that can’t begin to measure up to the playwright’s best work — think “Moonstruck”; think “Doubt”; think “Outside Mullingar,” for Pete’s sake. Whatever you do, don’t think plot, of which there is none.
Looking svelte and sexy in black widow’s weeds, Broadway favorite Sherie Rene Scott plays Atalanta Lagana, a much-married Greek bombshell who gets richer with the death of each of her several husbands. Her low-life lawyer, Barry Dragonetti, is played by Jason Alexander, who is best known to the world for his enduring presence as George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” but is more of a celebrity in the theater community for having been in the original cast of the legendary Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Ivey has costumed Barry in an electric blue suit that makes him a living sight gag. If it weren’t for Alexander’s amazing comic timing on his unworthy dialogue, that would be the one and only laugh his character deserves.
Think of Scott and Alexander as two actors in desperate need of a comedy – or of comic characters, at least — worthy of their out-sized talents. Neither role here fits the bill. Barry is sullenly nursing an old grudge because Atalanta’s late husband went to another lawyer to do his legal business. Atalanta is permanently peeved because Barry has never responded to her sexual advances. “Our relationship is tainted,” he feebly declares. “It could be perceived as improper.”
To further defend his virtue, Barry calls on his mother for backup. Mrs. Dragonetti (Mary Testa, breathing fire) is happy to take up the charge. “Barry’s no shyster!” Mrs. Dragonetti insists. “He’s just a lousy lawyer.” But he’s still her son and he deserves better than this black widow.
So far, ho-hum. Sensing that she’s losing Barry’s attention, Atalanta plays the sympathy card. “My husbands are dead and I don’t know who I am,” she wails. Barry is unmoved – but nonetheless intrigued by the information that Atalanta always called out his name when making love to her husband.
Could it be that Shanley is finally stuffing a bit of drama into this turkey? No such luck. The play is all talk, none of it amusing or interesting, even in the hands of capable supporting players like Aimee Carrero as Barry’s bimbo wife and Pico Alexander as Atalanta’s jailbait boyfriend.
The best Shanley can come up with is the occasional one-liner. “You were like a little forest creature,” Atalanta tells Barry, who takes this as the emasculating putdown it is. “You’re so Greek. You’re like a Clytemnestra,” Barry tells Atalanta, who mistakenly takes this as a compliment, forgetting for the moment that Clytemnestra murdered her husband. But instead of adding some substance to the lightweight characters, all these references to the heroes and heroines of Greek myth only remind us of what we’re missing.
Off Broadway Review: ‘The Portuguese Kid’
Manhattan Theater Club; 299 seats; $112.50 top. Opened Oct. 24, 2017. Reviewed Oct. 19. Running time: ONE HOUR, 40 MIN.
A Manhattan Theater Club production of a play in one act written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.
Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; original music & sound, Obadiah Eaves; production stage manager, James Fitzsimmons.