It’s very much to Marco Greco’s credit that his one-man show “Behind the Counter with Mussolini” deserves to be called a play, rather than an “act.”
Autobiographical shows can often seem like they’re created more for the performer’s benefit than the audience’s. There may be something therapeutic about Marco Greco’s performing this work about his immigrant Italian father, but such concerns never overshadow the vitality of the multifaceted world he presents.
People who see this highly entertaining piece will never be able to look at an Italian deli in quite the same way again.
Greco’s alter-ego here is the narrator Armando, who at 9 years old is forced by court order to visit his estranged father Michael, referred to throughout the play only as Il Duce because of the tyrannical manner in which he runs his deli in the Bronx.
At first, so terrified that he runs all the way home, the young Armando soon finds himself drawn to the bustling life behind the deli counter, where, despite his age, he’s made privy to the sometimes vulgar, always enthralling conversations of his elders, led by Il Duce himself.
The perspective of boyhood certainly assists in creating the charming tone of the first act. A sweet innocence pervades the play, and the audience is introduced to the various characters through Armando’s non-judgmental eyes.
We meet the various “Joeys” who work at the deli, like Joey Brains, a not-so-bright guy who was once hit in the head with a large piece of Parmesan. We also meet Zia Maria, a mysterious woman who may be something of a psychic, but may just be a lonely old lady.
There are other local “senoras” too, figures of incredible respect in the neighborhood who treat the workers in the deli as great craftsmen, as long as nobody tries to give them a less than perfect chunk of meat. And, of course, towering over everyone with the force of his personality is Il Duce.
Greco comes totally alive as a performer whenever he’s portraying his father. His finger juts up in a gesture of authority, his voice seems to increase by several decibels, his accent becomes convincingly that of an Italian immigrant. In a wonderful scene, we see Il Duce at his most theatrical, performing for the customers, lording over his employees, spouting opinions with the absoluteness of a dictator.
Director Stephen Adly Guirgis, who also helped develop the piece, brings forth the metaphor of the play’s title here very effectively, as Il Duce propounds upon a variety of issues — bathed in a strobed red floodlight and punctuated by the sound of a cheering crowd — in much the same manner as the infamous dictator.
In the second act, Armando grows up and transforms from an innocent child to a stereotypical “Guido” to a thoughtful man who knows he eventually needs to leave the life behind the counter and explore other possibilities.
Through an adult’s eyes, Il Duce is no longer the menacing, dominant figure of the first act, but a psychological obstacle to Armando’s own progress into manhood. Sure, Il Duce still lights up the stage whenever he appears, but he’s no longer the center of the story.
While Greco structures the narrative in this second half well, it does become a much more familiar father-son story. In the first half, the poignance comes from seeing how Il Duce behaves outside his element; for example, when he takes his son to a local restaurant and seems horribly uncomfortable speaking to the waitress politely. In the second act, the emotional arc comes to the forefront, but Greco’s performance seems more forced than in the beginning.
The characters lose their sharp edges and become more predictable, more functional to a plot. Still, given the difficulties of sustaining the dramatic momentum of a one-man play, Greco succeeds in telling a complete story, and, even more importantly, taking us into a world that, with only a few props, he brings alive.