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'Tony n' Tina': Married to Their Work : Improvisational wedding satire that's an off-Broadway hit is planning an L.A. ceremony

October 08, 1989|BARBARA ISENBERG

Here comes the bride. And the groom. And the singing nun, tipsy priest, lecherous father-in-law, stripper and rest of the bridal party.

Tina Vitale and Tony Nunzio, who have already gotten married more than 400 times in New York, start taking their vows in Los Angeles on Oct. 10. For $55 apiece--and $65 on weekends--total strangers can attend the wedding, then head over to the reception for baked ziti, drinks and dancing.

It isn't your traditional evening of theater, but thousands of theatergoers have helped turn "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" into one of the hottest tickets off-Broadway. Aided by a media blitz that could well make actors Nancy Cassaro (Tina) and Mark Nassar (Tony) the most recognizable bride and groom since Charles and Di, the show has been so successful that its producers are opening new productions this month in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

This is user-friendly theater, wrap-around entertainment like "Tamara," the long-running show at Hollywood's American Legion post and New York's Armory. But "Tony n' Tina" goes one step further. In "Tamara," you move from room to room listening as actors talk and interact with one another; in "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," the actors are still in character but they're improvising with audience members as well as with one another.

Previews start this week at the Park Plaza Hotel, a beautiful but weathered old building that faces MacArthur Park, and where a ballroom and patio area are being turned into a garden wedding setting. "When we walked in," says Cassaro, "I said 'perfect.' It had a grand elegance of the '20s, but it was definitely lived in. There were cigarette holes in the carpet and broken chandeliers. You could see that people have definitely partied down in this place."

At "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," the bridesmaids wear red lace and come down the aisle chewing gum. The unmarried maid of honor is very pregnant, and the mother of the bride is in black. The best man hands out coke ( fake coke) and the grandmother gives away grocery coupons. One of the ushers stops by to say he has VCRs for $25 apiece that fell off a truck, and the photographer hobbles up and down the aisle like his ankles are shackled.

The wedding reception starts with a toast of "wherever you go, there you are" and winds down with the bride and bridesmaids doing lip - sync to Michael Jackson's "Bad." When her frail grandmother faints on the dance floor and is carried off, Tina sneers: "She wants attention." And before the play ends, the groom shoves cake in the bride's face, the bride shrieks "I hate you," there's a barroom brawl and the bride knocks all the wedding gifts to the floor.

The audience is part of the action, and nobody stays a wallflower for long. Audience members are asked if they are guests of the bride or the groom, and then are escorted to their seats by ushers. There's a receiving line after the ceremony--"Isn't he as cute as I told you?" the bride asks one total stranger after another. And at the reception, where audience members are seated at assigned tables, the bride and groom make the rounds.

The "guests" sometimes get too involved. Set designer Randall Thropp plays Vlasik, a Russian emigre waiter, because, he says, "people take everything. We used to have stuff in the bathrooms but people trashed them. Once the show opened, I realized I had to be around all the time. This is a hands-on show."

On the other hand, people also bring things, many of which are now part of the New York set. The piano in the back of the hall displays actual congratulatory cards, and the bar area is decorated with such wedding gifts from audience members as a painted velvet Elvis and a cherub fruit stand.

It all started five years ago when Cassaro went to four weddings in two weekends and got to thinking about their dramatic potential. Besides doing performance art in Greenwich Village, Cassaro, 30, and Nassar, 31, had been doing improvs for years about an old Italian married couple. So, says Cassaro, "I asked him, 'Why not take that couple to when they were young, in love and got married?' "

They rounded up friends and classmates from Hofstra University and acting class, borrowed $1,000 from Cassaro's parents, and put on a show at an American Legion hall in the Village. After a second, slightly longer outing, Nassar's pal Joseph Corcoran, a Wall Street bond trader who was playing an usher, suggested bigger things. Corcoran, 29, and his brother Daniel, 26, also a bond trader, got together backing for a show in February, 1988, that they thought was going to be just a six-weekend run.

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