SAN DIEGO — John Patrick Shanley is a playwright who believes, unabashedly, in the power of love.
Just as the new Bowery Theatre, now firmly under the leadership of artistic director Ralph Elias and production manager Mickey Mullaney, clearly believes in the power of a Shanley script.
Elias' tenure at the Bowery began in March with his direction of Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," a major hit for the then-ailing theater. Now it picks up in the Bowery's new temporary location--the freshly constructed Kingston Playhouse at 1st Avenue and C Street--with "Italian American Reconciliation," playing through July 30.
The Shanley theme of love as the one force sure to drive you crazy even as it gives you a reason for living is as firmly in place in "Reconciliation" as it was in "Danny" and Shanley's script for the Academy Award-winning movie "Moonstruck."
If anything, he explores the idea in more complex and compelling detail in "Italian American Reconciliation." Here he leaves behind the simple story of boy meets girl and gets her to take a chance on love, and plunges into the muddier waters of a boy with a past--an ex-wife--who must break old emotional chains before he has the courage to claim his future.
As sensitively presented as it is by the Bowery, "Italian American Reconciliation" deserves an even wider audience than "Danny" enjoyed. For this play is not just for lovers, but for that larger class of survivors who dare to take a chance on love after getting burned again and again. It gives you hope--not that you will get a special dispensation from pain--but that pain can be a threshold that, if passed, can lead to joy.
Everyone thinks Huey is crazy when he tries to get back his ex-wife, Janice. She's trouble, after all. Janice once shot and killed Huey's dog. On another occasion, she tried to shoot Huey.
But Huey's emotional wounds are still raw and swelling from the 3-year-old divorce. Only Janice can heal him, he tells his best friend, Aldo Scalicki. So Huey drives away his devoted girlfriend, Teresa, and in the madness that follows, all four of the characters learn things about themselves that change their lives forever.
The "Danny" team of David Whitney Johnson and Erin Kelly are reunited here as Huey and Janice--and the chemistry still strikes sparks.
Johnson again plays the puppy dog, so overflowing with feeling that he thinks he can love enough for the both of them. Kelly, with her pouting lips burning red under a dark cloud of curly hair, cuts a mesmerizing figure in lacy black as the woman who has no use for the love he or anyone else has to offer.
Guest Equity artist Ken Myles narrates the action as Aldo, playing him with a suave charm that propels the action even as he smoothes over the fits and starts in the plot.
Stacey Rae is spirited as Teresa, the waitress who loves Huey, and Patricia Di Meo injects as much life as she can into Aunt May, whose thankless role in the play seems to be to alternately dispense wisdom and lend a shoulder on which to cry.
Elias' direction creates a feeling of intimacy enhanced by the cozy feeling of the new 88-seat black box theater. Erik Hanson's three-scene set adds to the feeling of close quarters--literally--by having Janice's house flow into Theresa's diner, which flows into Huey's apartment. J. A. Roth's lighting design distinguishes nicely between the scenes. Lawrence Czoka's sound design of opera blending with Frank Sinatra tunes stokes the emotional fires.
"Italian American Reconciliation" is not a flawless play by any stretch. Shanley's skillful portrayal of reality sometimes yields to his proclivity toward happy, tidy endings. It would be nice if there really were love at first sight as in "Moonstruck" and "Danny," or peace to be had from a heart-to-heart with one's ex, as in "Italian American Reconciliation."
For most people, such ideas are fairy tales, as Aldo, in fact, describes this story to the audience.
But what rescues Shanley's work once again from soporific sweetness is that some tough, true messages mix in with the soft soap.
"We are here to break our hearts," Nicolas Cage exclaims to Cher in "Moonstruck" as he urges her to leave a safe relationship with his brother and take a chance on loving him.
"No bargains in people," says wise Aunt May in "Italian American Reconciliation.
"You get what you pay for, and the currency is trouble."
Such pearls make this wise little fairy tale hard to resist.
By John Patrick Shanley. Director is Ralph Elias. Costumes by Kelly Fuller. Set by Erik Hanson. Sound by Lawrence Czoka. Lighting by J. A. Roth. Stage manager is Ken Lucas. With Ken Myles, David Whitney Johnson, Stacey Rae, Patricia Di Meo and Erin Kelly. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Through July 30. At 1057 1st Ave., San Diego.