Glendale Centre Theatre opens its 2014 season (and celebrates six weeks of Grandparents’ Day) with an absolutely terrific revival of Joe DiPietro’s hilarious, heartstring-tugging Valentine to a quartet of Italian-American nonni any one of us would be lucky to call our own.

1545603_720782854598942_1818568414_n Not that hero/narrator Nick Cristiano (Tommy Kearney) doesn’t have ample reason to gripe about maternal grandparents Frank and Aida Gianelli (Peter Renaday and Helen Siff) and paternal grandparents Nunzio and Emma Cristiano (Richard Large and Elaine Rose), for whom Sundays in the Gianellis’ “August-in-Ethiophia hot” Hoboken living room have meant twenty-nine years of Sunday meals—pasta, prosciutto, and molto amore.

After all, what young, up-and-coming New York marketing executive wants to face weekly exhortations to “be a man, start a family, and don’t eat Chinese food” from old-country septuagenarians without the slightest idea what “marketing” even means, who call a VCR a “CPU” or a “BCP” (or whatever three letters pop into their heads), and who have thrown out Nick’s gift of an answering machine because “every time we pressed a button, someone was yelling at us.”

1528674_720782771265617_1069094002_n On the other hand, no one could ask for more loving grandparents than Nick’s, who in addition to being “the loudest people I’ve ever met,” have instilled in their grandson solid old-fashioned values (“the three F’s of life: family, faith and food”) that will stand him in good stead regardless of where his destiny may lead him.

And there lies the rub, for Nick has just been offered a promotion that will mean moving not just out of New York but all the way across the country to Washington (and “not the close Washington. The far-away Washington–by California”), and how can Nick possibly tell his grandparents this news, especially since they’ve already been abandoned by Nick’s parents (for Florida) and by Nick’s sister (for San Diego)?

DiPietro milks the comic suspense leading up to Nick’s revelation for nearly half-an-hour, and when the bombshell is finally dropped, his grandparents’ reaction is every bit as bad as he has feared.

What Nick hasn’t counted on is Grandma Emma’s smarts, or the plan she immediately concocts. “He didn’t say he wants to move,” Emma reminds Frank, Nunzio, and Aida. “He said he had no reason to stay. So we give him a reason.”

1528740_720782801265614_1820328376_n Enter Caitlyn O’Hare (Christa Hamilton), the unmarried niece of Emma’s Irish-American canasta partner, summoned for Sunday dinner in hopes of killing two birds with one stone, for if Nick should find Caitlyn as irresistible as his grandparents feel sure he will, not only will he have a reason to stay in New York, he will fulfill four senior citizens’ fondest wish, to see their grandson married before they die.

Will Nick fall into his grandparents’ trap? Will he indeed fall for Caitlyn? Will Caitlyn fall for him in return? Will he decide to stay nearby in order to marry the girl of his grandparents’ dreams?

1557537_720783137932247_856140019_n To say that playwright DiPietro avoids the pat Hollywood ending may already be giving away too much, yet one of Over The River And Through The Woods’ greatest delights is discovering how niftily DiPietro avoids the predictable Hollywood ending while remaining every bit as heartwarming as a Hollywood ending deserves to be.

Another of Over The River And Through The Woods’ great delights is DiPietro’s way with words, which—had he written additional straight plays rather than the musicals (All Shook Up, Memphis, and most famously I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) he’s best known for—would easily make him the Italian-American Neil Simon.

1511292_720783031265591_1856512869_n A game of Trivial Pursuit is filled with hilarious one-liners. (“Who starred opposite Grace Kelly in High Noon?” “That actor—the one with the ears.”) Grandpa Frank’s reluctant decision to give up driving prompts Emma’s “Good, the world will be safer” and Frank’s funny bone-tickling response, “We’ll sit in my car and pretend it’s moving.” And when Emma tells her grandson for the umpteenth time, “I want to see you married before I die,” Nick’s Neil Simonesque comeback is a snappy, “Let me know when you think you’re going, and I’ll see who I can dig up.”

Still, if Over The River And Through The Woods racked up a grand total of 800 performances in its original 1998-2000 New York run, it’s not simply for the laughs (and the laughter through tears) that it inspires. DiPietro’s play deals thoughtfully—and thought-provokingly—with deeper issues. Nick wonders, “How much do you owe the people you care for? How can you repay them? When is it ever enough?”—questions increasingly relevant in a country where, as Nick’s sister Melissa quips, “the best thing about being an American is you can stay in the country and still move two thousand miles away.” Then again, as Nick’s grandparents would surely have it, might this not be modern America at its worst?

1480713_720782994598928_1919343498_n Under Martin Lang’s astute direction, a quartet of stage vets bring decades of professional and life experience to Nick’s four grandparents. Renaday’s heavily accented, old-school Frank (sent off to America at age fourteen with scarcely more than the shirt on his back) stands in perfect contrast with Large’s brasher American-born Nunzio, whose secret for getting hired as an auto factory worker was to tell Ford’s his name was Ian Sean O’Malley O’Brien O’Sullivan—“and they gave me the job!” Siff is marvelous too as Aida, whose delizioso Italian dishes were likely as legend as was her belief that any problem could be solved with a good solid Italian meal. Rose positively sparkles as Emma, though her choice to play the role with an Italian accent does not jive with a woman who has lived her entire life in Hoboken. It’s a treat too to see Glendale Centre Theatre musical comedy staple Hamilton in straight play mode, her winning work as Caitlyn making it entirely believable that Nick just might turn down a promotion/transfer if it meant losing the Irish-American lass.

1499589_720783357932225_824146981_n Still, Over The River And Through The Woods would not work nearly as well without leading man Kearney, whose acting chops and star charisma won him a Best Lead Actor Scenie as boxer Joe Pendleton in last year’s Heaven Can Wait. That role had Kearney in pitch-perfect 1940s mode, “nailing everything from Joe’s Palooka speech patterns to his boxer’s athleticism to the kind of razor-sharp comic timing no acting class can teach.” A considerably more contemporary Nick showcases the same expert comic timing, in addition to allowing Kearney to dig deep into a grandson’s conflict between familial love and a young man’s understandable desire to be his own person and live his own American dream.

1526645_720782631265631_1866640950_n Glendale Centre Theatre’s arena stage turns the audience into flies on all four walls of the Gianelli home, which scenic designer Nathan J. Milisavljevich has filled with furniture and rugs that look as if they’ve been there for all the decades Frank and Aida have called their Hoboken house home. (Kudos to director Lang for blocking the production so as not to shortchange any audience member, regardless of which wall he or she is a fly on.) Costume designer Angela Wood and her Glendale Costumes have outfitted each cast member in precisely the garb he or she would have picked off the rack (or had picked for him by a devoted wife or grandmother). Lighting and sound designs are uncredited, but both are first-rate. Paul Reid is stage manager.

If ever there were a play deserving to be called a “guaranteed crowd-pleaser,” it’s Over The River And Through The Woods, and though GCT’s subscription base of retirees may be the direct target of its aim, audiences of any age will find much to love in this Joe DiPietro gem.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
January 3, 2013
Photos: Dennis Stover

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