Supporting performances are uniformly terrific and design elements as good as it gets, but with a low-energy Burt Young slowing things down to a snail’s pace, audiences in search of theatrical sparks had best look elsewhere than writer-director David Varriale’s potentially entertaining Mafia comedy The Last Vig*.
Young stars as small-time Mafioso Big Joe, who’s worked his way ever so slightly up the Cosa Nostra ladder from John Gotti henchman to a decidedly minor “kingdom” run out of the backroom of General Li’s (Clint Jung) Chinese takeout joint in Astoria, Queens.
Unfortunately for Joe, his pasty-faced Tupak-wannabe gofer Bocce (Ben Adams) has arrived this afternoon with some rather distressing news.
The delivery guy they’ve sent down to Atlantic City to return a hundred thousand dollars worth of borrowed Caesars Palace chips to their rightful owner has vanished, leaving Joe not only a hundred grand in debt but suspected of having engineered their theft.
Joe’s solution to said conundrum is to send fixer Jimmy D (Gareth Williams) down to Caesars with a borrowed hundred Gs in cash, get the Atlantic City mob off his back, and worry about paying back the loan when need be, even if it means informing his seriously ill wife that their plans to vacation in Boca (and put some cash in the bank for their just-turned-eighteen grandson) are off.
If all this sounds like it could add up to some brisk, funny, in-the-know Goodfellas fun, it certainly could were it not weighed down by a lead performance so molasses-paced that what ought to be a forty-five minute first act runs a full hour.
Not that Young doesn’t still have that Rocky-franchise charm, and in his favor, the 1976 Oscar nominee does know all his lines, but with Act One entirely dependent on one-on-one scenes, audience members may be so focused on figuring out what’s up with Young that important plot points get lost in the haze.
Fortunately, most of Act Two belongs to The Last Vig’s splendid supporting cast, leaving Big Joe mostly silent at the desk where he sits plopped the greater part of the evening.
The dynamic Williams nails Jimmy D, at long last winding down after life in the fast lane but still plenty scrappy. Nozick ignites the stage as a man grown frustrated with “these kids comin’ up today” who “don’t appreciate the cop on the take.” Jung adds Cantonese/Szechuan spice in his too brief appearances as “General” Paul Li. A prerecorded Lizzie Peet imbues Big Joe’s ailing wife Rose Marie with layers and decades of loves in their occasional phone chats.
Best of all is newcomer Adams, whose spunky do-rag-sporting would-be gangsta proves so irresistible, Bocce deserves a spinoff all his own.
At the very least, The Last Vig features as fine an intimate production design as you’ll see anywhere in town—Joel Daavid’s deliciously dingy back room set (kudos to properties designer Phi Tran for the years of clutter), Kelley Finn’s evocative lighting, Mylette Nora’s spot-on costumes, and sound designer Will Mahood’s layered mix of effects and Jeff Babko’s original music. (The passing train sequences deserve a particular round of applause.)
The Last Vig is produced by Raquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners. Casting is by Russell Boast, CSA. Danny Crisp is stage manager.
With a more vital leading man, this Zephyr Theatre guest production could well have proven an early 2017 treat. Unfortunately, despite script potential and terrific work all around Big Joe, The Last Vig is one to be skipped.
*Since the title never gets explained, I looked it up. According to the Urban Dictionary, a “vig” is “payment of a service rendered to a benefactor from the beneficiary of said service.” Who knew?
The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
January 14, 2107
Photos: Ed Krieger