JUST NOW you don’t have to look far for Joe DiPietro. The New Jersey-born playwright cobbled songs from George and Ira Gershwin into the musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, which opened last week at Cabrillo College. And his comedy Over the River and Through the Woods began a three-performance run at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas on Saturday.
The latter is a production of The Listening Place Readers Theater, a Salinas-based company that creates performance opportunities for largely seasoned veterans. How seasoned you ask? Very well-seasoned. The two grandfathers in Over the River, Philip Pearce and Mike Robbins, are in their 90s and have long-participated in the Western Stage’s Legacy Players troupe. How long you ask? Never mind.
The only thing about TLP Readers Theater production that strikes me as odd is watching the actors as they read. That’s because I remember when comedy, drama and story-telling came to everyone without pictures. Yes, kiddies, there was a time in America when you got all that good stuff from the radio—when your imagination had to supply the “visuals.” (I will never forget the day the original “funny girl,” Fanny Brice, died. It was the day my brother and I came home from school, tuned in her daily show “Baby Snooks” as we had done the day before, only to hear something completely unexpected, a man announcing an orchestra, and, to us, definitely not funny.)
Aside from that, everything went just as I remember from those pre-TV days. DiPietro’s turns and jokes were delivered with that comedic timing that renewed the foundation for great American comedy in the 20th century, and ever since. (Mike Robbins has it with some kind of genius, two seconds this way or that makes all the difference.)
Yet the play would not have had its long off-Broadway run or won its several awards but for the poignancy inherent in the relationship between the grandson, Nick Cristano (Robert Colter) and his grandparents, Frank and Aida Gianelli (Robbins and Rita Carratello) and Nunzio and Emma Cristano (Pearce and Susan Keenan.) In the years since Nick’s parents exiled themselves from their parents in Hoboken to retirement in Florida, his sister relocated to San Diego and, perhaps most deeply-felt by the older Cristanos, the loss of Nick’s father in the Korean “conflict” after World War II, Nick has faithfully made the schlep from the Big Apple every Sunday to share dinner with the four people who, in their own individual ways, count on him to keep the family faith. Actually, the sacred “family, faith and food” trinity.
But then, of course, comes the wrinkle: Nick, 29, unmarried and a successful New York marketing executive, has been offered a promotion that requires him to relocate to Seattle. Oy, declaim the non-Jewish Italian grandparents! This is where the comedy takes flight. And much of it had me laughing out loud. That’s what the crowd—well, about 35 people—turned out for within the hallowed John Steinbeck display, and LOL they did. (Despite plentiful display lighting almost none of it was redirected to illuminate the performers on this occasion, certainly frustrating them.)
After funny bits about the oven-like heat in the Gianelli apartment, the constant force-feeding of everyone all the time by the well-intentioned Aida, and spoofs around the Q&A of Trivial Pursuit—the grandparents finally agree it was Clark Gable who starred opposite Grace Kelly in High Noon—the four elders immediately conspire to keep Nick where he obviously belongs, with them. To do so, they follow Emma’s lead by recruiting—actually ensnaring— her young canasta-partner friend Caitlin O’Hara (Kalyn Shubnell) to join them for Sunday dinner.
But when the grandparents assail Caitlin with a slew of inappropriately personal questions, Nick protests so forcefully that the bewildered young woman tries to extricate herself from the family dynamics. Act 1 ends as Nick collapses into a panic attack.
Except for Caitlin, each of the others steps out of character to provide the audience with backstory continuity or simple asides. Aida, it turns out, is as much philosopher as cook. Nunzio admits privately that he is dying of cancer.
Meanwhile, in a private moment, Nick and Caitlin acknowledge the set-up and admit that neither feels the chemistry intended by the conspirators. She even calls him an ass for his overreactions to his grandparents’ interrogations.
The action plays itself out in both broad comedic strokes and the subtle emotional details that give the piece its humanity and immediate appeal.
Credit in large measure is due to director MaryAnn Rousseau, another talented ‘legacy’ veteran of theater in Monterey County. And thanks to producer Linda Hancock for her indefatigable determination to restore and recapture the imagination and romance of what those of us who can still remember them called ‘radio dramas.’
One performance remains, this Sunday afternoon at the Monterey Museum of Art—where the lighting will allow you see the actors’ facial expressions with greater ease.
From left, Kalyn Shubnell, Robert Colter, Mike Robbins, Rita Carratello, Philip Pearce & Susan Keenan