An adult adoptee attempts to connect with his birth father, who then concocts a cockamamie scheme to have his younger brother pretend to be Dear Old Dad, in Steven Drukman’s The Prince Of At Atlantis, now getting its World Premiere at South Coast Repertory.

 If this soapy premise and sitcommy intro seem an unlikely mix, then indeed they prove to be precisely that, at least initially.

Then, about midway through, The Prince Of Atlantis starts to exert its magic and becomes something a good deal more special as its characters begin to snap, crackle, and pop, an unexpected bond is formed, a third-act twist occurs—and presto voilà, Drukman’s play turns into, if not Must See Theater, at the very least something well worth checking out.

We first meet brothers Joey and Kevin Colletti (John Kapelos and Matthew Arkin) in the visiting area of a minimum security Massachusetts prison where frozen fish mogul Joey, aka The King Of Atlantis, has been incarcerated for mislabeling some of his catch. With just nine months remaining on his sentence, Joey asks Kevin to help him convince Miles Overten (Brett Ryback), his recently found son, to hold off on paying him a visit, at least till Joey gets out of the slammer. This involves having Kevin email Miles that he, Joey, will be completely out of touch in the jungles of Vietnam for the next—you guessed it—nine months. (See what I mean by cockamamie?) Despite some initial reluctance, Kevin does agree to sending off the email, in which he suggests that Miles consider paying Dad a visit once Joey is back in the States. When Miles jumps the gun and visits the Colletti home about nine months ahead of schedule, he quite naturally assumes (this still being part of the sitcommy setup) that Kevin is Joey, and Kevin, quite naturally—and for the same reason—can’t seem to find a way to set him straight.

Aside from their Boston accents, The Colletti brothers couldn’t be more different. Joey is a scrappy, fast-talking, take-chances businessman. Kevin is a pot-smoking, Shakespeare-reading, lifelong loser who’s been institutionalized for depression on more than one occasion. Both sprinkle their sentences with the “Lake Talk” jargon endemic to the Nonantum neighborhood of Newton, MA. (According to the handy glossary on page P-3 of the program, “That crazy guy gave the pretty girl some cash” would translate into “That divia mush gave the quistya jival some wonga.”)

 Joey and Kevin’s first scene is straight out of sitcom land, and so too, at least at first glance, is Joey’s smart-talking bimbo of a girlfriend Connie Bonfiglio (Nike Doukas), who’s none too happy with the idea that a preexisting heir to Joey’s business empire (i.e. Miles as the titular Prince Of Atlantis) might get in the way of her own offspring’s inheritance, that is should Joey finally agree to marry her and father her child.

Once Kevin and Miles begin to connect, however, The Prince Of Atlantis begins to replicate real life as we know it, or at least as we’ve seen it on stage and screen, with uncle and son bonding over the many things they have in common, making all the more understandable Kevin’s reluctance to burst Miles’ bubble by revealing that his old man is a crook not due for release for another nine months.

 Director Warner Shook, who won a pair of Scenies for his direction of SCR’s The Importance Of Being Earnest and Crimes Of The Heart, makes the very most of a script which, while not completely there yet, is most certainly heading in the right direction, particularly as performed by a stellar L.A.-based ensemble.

Kapelos, still probably best known as that Breakfast Club janitor, gives Joey a brash panache that makes the older brother’s frequent use of “dictionary words” he’s learned in the pokey seem almost natural, and he and Arkin have terrific sibling chemistry.

 South Coast Rep regulars can rejoice in Doukas’ umpteenth SCR appearance (her program bio makes this at least her seventeenth), as the Southland treasure imbues Connie with effervescence, sass, street smarts, and heart.

It’s a treat to see triple-threat musical theater performer (and playwright, and musician, and songwriter) Ryback in purely comedic/dramatic mode for a change, and his subtle work as Miles contrasts rewardingly with his castmates’ more “colorful” roles and knife-thick Boston accents.

Finally, as Kevin, Arkin invests the play’s most complex character, an underachieving pothead with an affinity for Shakespeare and a heart of gold, with oceans of depth, making his scenes with Ryback the play’s emotional core and one of the keys to its success.

There is some script tweaking to be done. Characters could be fleshed out a bit more, particularly Joey, and though Newtonians may indeed use “Lake Talk” as pervasively as do the brothers Colletti, a little goes a long way on stage, or at least it did for this reviewer. As for Miles’ bisexuality, it seems tacked on for no particular reason.

One area where The Prince Of Atlantis could hardly be better is in its design, most notably Tom Buderwitz’s “Little Mermaid On Acid” set, one which masterfully integrates just about every oceanic cliché imaginable (the octopus chandelier is a particular delight) into one over-the-top marvel of scenic design. Peter Maradudin’s vivid lighting design makes Buderwitz’s set and Angela Balogh Calin’s splendid costumes, look all the flashier. Musical director Michael Roth’s original music aids considerably in the play’s tonal shifts, and Philip D. Thompson’s dialect coaching makes for some ear-catching vowels. Kelly L. Miller is dramaturg, Jackie S. Hill, production manager, and Chrissy Church stage manager.

Though not quite as “wicked pissa” (extremely excellent) as the best of South Coast Repertory’s World Premieres, The Prince Of Atlantis, workshopped and developed in last year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, turns perfect enough in its final scenes to become an authentic crowd-pleaser. And you can bet wonga on that!

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 10, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco

Comments are closed.