68 Cent Crew Theatre Company continues its epic 13 By Shanley festival with probably the most out-and-out romantic double bill of the fest, John Patrick Shanley’s brief but unforgettable teens-in-love romantic comedy The Red Coat, followed by the two-act romcom Italian American Reconciliation.  The 1989 two-acter could just as easily have been titled the less cumbersome Moonstruck, but Shanley had already used that title two years before in the Oscar-winning Cher-Nicolas Cage film which it resembles. Together, the playlet and the play, both of them directed with grace and panache by Ronnie Marmo and assistant director Katy Jacoby, make for the most quirkily romantic (or romantically quirky) evening of theater around.

Italian American Reconciliation is also one of the most star-studded Equity-waiver plays you’re likely to see this spring, and one more example of L.A. theater at its most world-class. Its cast includes two-time Emmy winner Sally Struthers, Leo and Kate’s costar in Titanic and veteran of countless TV and film roles Danny Nucci, Angela Pupello of the original Broadway cast of The Drowsy Chaperone et al, Pupello’s real-life husband Danny Cistone, yet another Broadway vet (who happens to also be one of the finest set designers in this or any other town). Where else but in L.A. would a cast like this be willing to work for peanuts, simply for the love of doing live theater?

The Red Coat

The Red Coat stars Brent Austin Tarnol and Shelly Hacco, a pair of absolutely adorable lesser-knowns, in the roles of John and Mary, a pair of teenagers who discover love on a moonlit night.  Mary is about to go into a friend’s party when she spots John, a boy she scarcely knows, waiting for her outside. His words to her pretty much sum up the style and feel of the playlet.  Just listen: “There’s a breeze out here, and the moon … look at the way the moon is … and I knew you were outside somewhere, too! So I came out and sat on the steps here and I thought that maybe you’d come and I would be here … outside the party, on the steps, in the moonlight … and you and me would be talking on the steps in the night in the moonlight and I could tell you …”

Any romantic at heart can guess what John wants to tell Mary, but Shanley makes it magic.  First kiss. First love.  Love that can bloom in an instant under the New York moon. And the strains of “They tried to tell us we’re too young” playing in the background…

Bushy-haired Tarnol is all earnest sincerity, innocent passion, and utter lovability as John, and girl-next-door Hacco, with a delightful rasp in her voice and an endearing charm about her, makes for an equally winning Mary.  

At less than 10 minutes, The Red Coat is over way too soon for a romantic like myself, but why tinker with the perfection of this completely wonderful bit of romantic magic?

Italian American Reconciliation

Then comes the main attraction, Italian American Reconciliation.

Remember in Moonstruck when Nicolas Cage told Cher he loved her and she slapped him twice with a “Snap out of it!” on her lips, or their shouts of “You ruined my life!” “No, you ruined my life!” … and you have some idea of the way Shanley adds more than a dash of salt and pepper (both black and picante) to its romance.

Italian American Reconciliation begins with confirmed bachelor (but very hetero) Aldo Scalicki (Nucci) greeting the audience with “How you doin’?” and “How’s it goin’?” and even cuing us in to the fact that his mother’s sitting among us (though “I don’t want to point her out cause she’s shy.”) Soon, Aldo has been joined by his best friend Huey Maximilian Bonfigliano (Cistone), improbably dressed in what Shanley describes as “a very poetic white shirt with billowing sleeves” and jodhpurs. Though Huey has been happily dating Teresa for some time now, he can’t seem to forget his ex-wife Janice, despite the fact that she killed his dog with a zip gun and even took a shot at him—and he wants Aldo to help him get Janice back.  “I gotta get back Janice before I start thinkin’ about like killin’ myself,” he confesses to his bff, and asks him to “talk Janice to a place where you think I can talk to her.”  Then Huey will make his move.

Meanwhile, at Pop’s Soup House, Teresa (Kim Rousseau) discloses to Aunt May (Struthers) her own plan to break up with Huey.  “In the beginning, he was like this guy who loved me, and he had no past with anybody,” she reveals.  “Then the past came and got him, threw a bag over him. The man was kidnapped by his own past.”  Things certainly don’t get better when Huey drops by and accidentally calls her Janice. “Do you love Janice?” she asks.  “I’ve got to get her back,” he replies. “Then get outta here,” she orders. “Let’s see what happens next,” says Huey before heading off.

What happens next won’t be revealed here, except to say that Janice (Pupello) does appear, mostly looking down from the balcony of her house, very Romeo and Juliet except that Janice is not Juliet and neither Aldo nor Huey looks or acts very much like Romeo.  Still, unexpected things do happen and many sparks fly before the show’s philosophical yet romantic ending. As one of the characters says, “The greatest, the only success, is to be able to love.”

Shanley’s characters often speak in long paragraphs (actors seeking audition monologs can find plenty of them here), and though on paper there tends to be an air of artificiality about them, when spoken by a cast as all-around faultless as the one assembled here, they are entirely real and at the same time quite poetic.

Nucci gets the biggest, plummest role here and he plays it absolutely right. Cocky, ingratiating, honest, passionate, Aldo is all of this, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better than Nucci in this he-was-born-to-play-it role.  As Huey, Cistone is so heartbreakingly sincere, funny and you-just-want-to-pinch-his-cheek cute one can scarcely conceive of anyone’s wanting to take a shot at him … or his dog.  Then again, there’s Pupello’s marvelously bitchy Janice, a sharp-tongued Italian who could give Shakespeare’s Kate a run for her money, but whom you suspect could easily melt if approached in just the right way.  Struthers is wise-cracking, philosophizing perfection as Aunt May, her years in TV sitcoms having taught her how to get laughs from the most unexpected of lines.  Finally, Rousseau makes every bit as strong an impression as her better-known (for the moment but probably not for long) castmates.  Even plained-down, she is a stunner in the Sandra Bullock mode, and so winning that one can’t help wonder what lunacy would make Huey decide to break up with her.

Design for all thirteen of the 13 By Shanley plays has been supervised by Cistone (wearing his other hat). Simple but effective (a stoop and streetlamp here, a table or counter and stools there), Cistone’s set suddenly dazzles in Act Two with Janice’s gorgeous flower-festooned balcony. Once again, Neda Pourang’s wardrobe fits every character to a T, from Aldo’s tight shirts and leather jackets to Aunt May’s oversized baggy tunics to Huey’s fanciful out-of-another-era duds. Sound designer Bruce Barker knows exactly when to it’s time for Puccini and when to put Sinatra on the turntable.  

Shanley’s plays are so eclectic that there is literally something for everyone in 13 By Shanley.  This double bill is for the romantics in the house, yet even those who decry chick flicks will likely find much to savor in Italian American Reconciliation.  After all, Moonstruck grossed $85 million in 1987 (almost $150 million in today’s currency), which should bode well for its theatrical cousin’s popularity.  It’s hard to imagine a better acted or directed production than this one.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 29, 2009

The final performance of Italian American Reconciliation/The Red Coat took place almost five months to the day after opening night. Both plays featured almost entirely new casts, performing in front of a Standing Room Only crowd which erupted numerous times in enthusiastic applause. The Red Coat’s Peter Newman and Gina Lohrman made for an utterly adorable pair of teenagers in (first) love, making the parts entirely their own. Newman particularly showed a breathtaking range of emotions as John.  The second cast of Italian American Reconciliation was headed by the brilliant duo of Jeffrey Vincent Parise and Jeremy Luke, Parise managing the impossible feat of following Danny Nucci as the irrepressable Aldo, and the terrific, chameleonlike Luke (Huey) virtually unrecognizable as the same actor who starred in Savage In Limbo. Shelly Hacco graduated from The Red Coat to adulthood as an earthy, very real Teresa.  Laura Julian, the sole performer to act with both casts, was a wonderful Aunt May, and Christine Venuti nailed every “Janice moment” to perfection. Ronnie Marmo and assistant Katy Jacoby’s direction remained as electric as ever.  What a thrill and joy it was to see this great double bill again, with a new set of actors every bit  equal to their predecessors.  13 By Shanley ended its five and a half month run with a big fat Italian bang!

–Steven Stanley
August 15, 2009

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