Having been reared on the sidewalks of New York--Little Italy, the Bronx--John Patrick Shanley's characters are great talkers. They didn't get a fancy education, and maybe that's a help. When they need a figure of speech, they grab whatever's at hand, like a guy going for a tire iron in a fight.
The point is to get across what they think about the world, especially the man-woman department. Which is to say, the trouble department. Still, each of Shanley's characters--the guys, too--wants to believe that it's possible to hook up with someone of the opposite tribe for more than overnight. Meanwhile they keep talking.
Shanley's people ought to make us think of Studs Lonigan and his old high-school crowd, facing their 30s without a clue as to what they're doing in the world. In fact, Shanley's characters don't disturb us. Even when they're miserable, they're colorfully so, and they always have something punchy to say. Shanley puts it exactly right when he calls his latest play, "Italian-American Reconciliation," a folktale.
It gets a superior production at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood, but it's less convincing than the other Shanley in town just now, "Savage in Limbo," at the Cast Theatre. Not because the dialogue is any less punchy or amusing, but because it tends to get unmoored from the story; sometimes even to substitute for the story.
Here's the story that actually gets seen: Huey (Leo Rossi) wants to reconcile with his evil-tempered former wife, Janice (Patti D'Arbanville). But he's afraid she'll blow his head off if he proposes this directly--she's got a history with zip guns.
So Huey's friend Aldo (Joe Pantoliano) agrees to pave the way for him. The central scene where first Aldo, and then Huey, try to talk Janice down from her fire-escape balcony, is funny and fully realized. Shrewdly acted too with D'Arbanville making Janice plenty tough, but ready to respond to the man who can rescue her from her castle of self-hate, and each of the guys trying to convince her that salvation is here. Yo, Prince Valiant.
There are, however, three other scenes. Here we get a lot more talk than action, much of it unproductive.
For example, after Huey goes on about how miserable he is without Janice, Aldo comes up with a complaint about how isolated he feels from other men--something he's got to straighten out before he can get close to women. It almost seems an attempt on Aldo's part, or Shanley's, to prove that he's a character in his own right, rather than the stooge that Janice says he is. Certainly the ensuing action doesn't take his problem anywhere.
Then there's Aunt May, a black woman who has turned Italian by marriage. In fact, she has turned into something of a strega , or witch. An amusing idea and a witty portrayal by Nichelle Nichols. But Aunt May's only function in the play is to drink minestrone and to give advice--first to her niece Teresa (Elizabeth Pena), who thought she was going with Hughie; and then to Aldo. Not very dramatic. This being a folk-play, couldn't she cast a spell or something?
Feminists won't find the play endearing in its basic faith that women are there to be "taken," like Pork Chop Hill, after which the man can move on with no questions asked. It's fine that Huey wins back his manhood from Janice, but where does that leave Janice? (Shanley discards her with as little compunction as his hero does.)
Still, hostility between the sexes is true to the environment of the play, and it pays off in theatrical terms. Elsewhere "Italian-American Reconciliation" too often suggests a self-struck tenor practicing scales--great sounds, but not a lot happening.
The performers are always engaging, particularly Pantoliano as Aldo, our narrator, who never gets so wrapped up in the story that he forgets his mother is watching from the audience. Jefferson Rogers' set is simple without being bare, and the company knows how to live on it. Shanley directed, assisted by Roxanne Rogers, who did such a precise job staging "Savage in Limbo." Don't miss that one.
RECONCILIATION' John Patrick Shanley's play, at the Gnu Theatre. Director Shanley. Assistant director Roxanne Rogers. Set design Jefferson Rogers. Lighting design Keith Endo, Kristin Coppola. Costumes Judy Krass. Sound Leonora Schildkraut. Stage manager Shawn LaVallee. Production assistant Diane Wade. Producers Tom Bower, Alan Vint. Co-producer Jane Alsobrook. With Joe Pantoliano, Leo Rossi, Elizabeth Pena, Nichelle Nichols, Patti D'Arbanville. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Closes Sept. 20. Tickets $15. 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 508-5344.