ICT has yet another winner in the West Coast premiere of The Sweepers, the first of John C. Picardi’s proposed 10-play cycle focusing on the Italian American experience.  Set in the summer of 1945, The Sweepers begins as a Neil Simonesque comedy about squabbling female neighbors in Boston’s Italian neighborhood, then in its final quarter veers into Arthur Miller territory. That this startling transition from comedy to drama happens organically, and not as if from another play entirely, is thanks to the very real characters Picardi has created, and the superb performances of the cast ICT has assembled.

The titular “sweepers” are three longtime friends and neighbors (Bella, Dotty, and Mary), most of whose male loved ones are away at war leaving the women at home to miss their men, sweep the steps in front of their apartments, and squabble.

First up is Mary (Valerie Perri), kneeling before a small statue of the Virgin Mary and entreating her to bring back her husband and son.  “My patience is running thin,” Mary tells the Blessed Virgin. Bella (Susan Giosa) arrives next, complaining about “that snotty little priss from Wellesley” that her half-Irish son Sonny is about to marry. Completing the trio is Dotty (Donna Ponterotto), whose husband is in a mental hospital because “he’s got this neurotic thing” and whose son is off fighting in the war.

Unlike Mary and Dotty’s sons, Bella’s Sonny (Jamie Hobert) has stayed out of the service due to a heart murmur, and has become an attorney at a snooty law firm.  He also has an upscale fiancée, Karen (Danielle Vernengo). Despite Bella’s protests that Karen is indeed Italian American, Mary insists that “she doesn’t look, talk, or act like us. She’s a Yankee, and she’s going to convert Sonny into a Yankee too!”

Dotty has a present for Bella, wedding sheets for the bride and groom’s honeymoon night. (Custom has it that the sheets be hung out for all to see the morning after the wedding night as evidence for all to see that the bride is a virgin.) This custom is not likely to sit well with Karen, who despite the last name Foletti has grown up in a WASP neighborhood worlds removed from Sonny’s childhood home.  Although it is expected in Sonny’s world that Karen and her groom will live with Bella, Karen has other plans—to move into a house that her father will help them buy, and to visit her mother-in-law only on weekends.  With Sonny hoping to open his own firm someday and help “his people” and Karen wishing for him to work for her father, the couple’s road to marital bliss would seem to be a rocky one.

For the first act and a half, The Sweepers enjoys poking gentle fun at these five characters.  Dotty, the not too bright one, confuses “fascist” with “fastest” and thinks that the canapés served by Karen’s family were made from a “can of peas.” Playwright Picardi paints a vivid picture of three best friends who spend as much time putting each other down and telling each other to “Shut up!” (always two against one) as they do laughing and reminiscing.  He also milks multiple laughs from Bella and Sonny’s mother-son relationship, and from Dotty and Mary’s love of rubbing Bella’s nose in Karen’s “Yankee” upbringing. Picardi is equally aware of the third-generation experience, and of Sonny’s feelings of being a misfit, someone who feels as out of place in his fiancée’s upper-middle class world as he does in his childhood neighborhood.  

In The Sweepers’ final half hour, things get serious, as shocking secrets (none of which will be revealed here) come to light.

Picardi has written dream roles for his three lead actresses, and director caryn desai does some of her best work ever in guiding the sensational Giosa, Perri, and Ponterotto to superlative performances.  Ponterotto breathes three-dimensional life into the charmingly dim bulb that is Dotty, and makes us understand her loneliness as well as her fear of bringing her still not quite right husband back from the hospital.  Giosa sinks her teeth into the plum role of Bella, alternately scrapping with her neighbors and screaming at her son. Then come revelations about Bella which turn this already great part into the proverbial role of a lifetime and allow Giosa to show off her dramatic chops, which she does to devastating effect.  Perri (the first Evita in the show’s First National Tour) demonstrates here that she is as adept at comedy/drama as she is at musical theater.  At first Mary would seem to be the least “colorful” of the three women, but just wait. When Mary’s secret is let out of the bag, Perri gets to play a scene which any actress would kill for, and she knocks it out of the ballpark.

Hunky Hobert is a particularly strong presence as Sonny, a young man torn between two women he loves equally.  Proving himself as fine a dramatic actor as he is in comedic scenes, Hobert gets to work here with his lovely real-life bride Vernengo, which adds particular chemistry to their scenes together.  Vernengo shows us the steel under Karen’s sweet exterior, and in her scene opposite Giosa, in which the two women square off over the wedding sheets, there are real dramatic fireworks. 

Matthew D. Egan’s excellent set design recreates a 1940s Boston brick-walled ethnic neighborhood, and lets us both inside the homes and out.  Kim DeShazo’s costumes and Anthony Gagliardi’s wigs and hair design are vivid and accurate recreations of 1940s fashion.  Bill Georges’ lighting and sound design are equally fine.

As a look back to what we like to think of as a “simpler time,” as an affectionate depiction of a particular American ethnicity, and as a great acting vehicle for its gifted cast, The Sweepers is a winner all around.

International City Theatre, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 19, 2008
Photos: Shashin Desai

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