The premiere production of North Hollywood’s newly refurbished El Portal Center for the Arts is a well-acted but innocuous little sitcom, hampered immensely by Steve Shaw’s gratingly inadequate sound design. Director Asaad Kelada and a facile ensemble (when they could be heard) do their best with Joe Dipietro’s predictable coming-of-age tale of third generation Italian-American Nick Cristano (Stuart Fratkin) and his four colorful yet difficult grandparents. But their efforts are ultimately defeated by the work’s lack of substance and the inadequacies of the production design onstage.
In an ongoing effort to keep their only grandson safely trapped within their smothering love, Nick’s paternal grandparents, Nunzio (Joseph Campanella) and Emma (Carol Lawrence), and their maternal peers, Frank (Joseph Cardinale) and Aida (Erica Yohn) Gianelli, shout “Tengo famiglia.”
Their manic efforts escalate to a higher level when Nick announces that he soon will be leaving Hoboken, N.J., to further his career in Seattle, Wash. The aging foursome even enlist the unwitting assistance of comely young nurse Caitlin O’Hare (Shannon O’Hurley) in hopes that Nick will immediately fall in love, marry and settle down within safe driving distance of their Sunday family dinners at the Gianelli house.
Kelada creates a wonderfully supportive and dynamic interaction among the four grandparents. As they converse with, through and over the top of each other, it becomes quite believable that these two couples have known and cared for each other for over 50 years. It’s too bad the material doesn’t come up to the level of the performance.
As Nunzio and Emma, Campanella (“The Practice”) and Lawrence (the original Maria in “West Side Story”) exude such a palpable aura of romantic love, it’s only natural that their characters feel that all of Nick’s hopes and dreams would be answered if he found the right girl. Yohn is poignantly comical as the single-minded Aida, who believes all life begins and ends with the fare she is constantly serving up from her kitchen. And Cardinale creates a telling portrayal of the gruff but goodhearted self-made man who refuses to admit he is growing old.
As the center of everyone’s concern, Fratkin is quite believable as the goodhearted but frustrated Nick, who suffers an emotional collapse from his desire to create a new life for himself without breaking his grandparents’ hearts. When forced to spend a few days living with Aida and Frank, Fratkin’s Nick effectively communicates a new-found respect for his elderly relatives and a growing attraction to Caitlin. O’Hare is equally plausible as the bright, warmhearted young woman who just may be the right girl for Nick, if he decides to stick around.
The El Portal Center for the Arts holds promise as a significant addition to the live theater community once it works out its acoustic problems. As it stands now, one can hear clearly the rustle of a program from across the seating area while the voices from the stage sound like they are being projected from across town.