Aisle View: Two Plays from Two Pulitzer Winners

Aisle View: Two Plays from Two Pulitzer Winners
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Pico Alexander, Aimee Carrero, Mary Testa, Jason Alexander and Sherie Rene Scott in John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid

Pico Alexander, Aimee Carrero, Mary Testa, Jason Alexander and Sherie Rene Scott in John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid

Photo: Richard Termine

The Manhattan Theatre Club now brings us a revival of The Portuguese Kid, which lasted a mere five weeks in the spring of 1971 at the Morosco with Vincent Gardenia, Maureen Stapleton and Mildred Natwick.

But wait! This is not a revival of an undistinguished old sex comedy that languished on stage like an overripened banana back in the days when New York was “fun city.” It is a new overripened affair, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. There are plenty of laughs on hand—and I do mean plenty of laughs—but the whole thing is along the lines of Norman, Is That You? (Look it up, if you must. Lou Jacobi, anyone?)

This, from the accomplished dramatist who won (and deserved) a Pulitzer for Doubt and an Oscar for Moonstruck.

Shyster-lawyer Barry Dragonetti (Jason Alexander) and real estate agent Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott) are rich, middle-aged sparring partners from Providence who have been needling each other since they were fifteen. At that point, he was mugged by a Portuguese kid with a can opener (smelling of tuna); she stepped in and “saved” him by busting her root beer (can? bottle?) on the Portuguese kid’s head. Barry has had a psychological chip on his underdeveloped shoulder ever since, while Atalanta has destroyed her various marriages and affairs by unaccountably screaming “Barry” when in the throes of passion. There! Try and build your play around that.

Barry has a too-young bimbo wife, Patty (Aimee Carrero); Atalanta has a too-young bimbo lover, Freddie (Pico Alexander, no relation to Jason)—and the bimbos, most obviously, have what they call in the vernacular “the hots” for each other. Not only that, Barry has an Italian mama and how!: Mrs. Dragonetti, played with a rose in her teeth and a dagger in her breast by Mary Testa. While dramatically suspect, Testa positively fuels the play; one can only imagine how flat things might fall without her entrances—like clockwork—whenever Shanley needs a spark. And if you’re familiar with the scenery-gnarling Testa (from Queen of the Mist, the George Wolfe On the Town and the recent Government Inspector), you can well imagine how she keeps you laughing no matter what they ask her to do. Think Ethel Merman in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Alexander, a young stage actor of growing reputation before he went off to Seinfeldland, carries off his crass role like—well, maybe Lou Jacobi. Scott, too, does what she must with her overbroad role. They both give their all, despite the hand (and lines) they’ve been dealt, but we’d prefer to see them in something more substantial. The kids are as effective as necessary, getting the laughs Mr. Shanley provides. None of the four need lift a finger, actually, not with Testa prowling through the four cartoonishly cheesy/elegant sets provided by the ever-reliable John Lee Beatty.

The action climaxes with a sight gag built around what seems to be an invisible prosthetic phallus, to shrieks of laughter (and I do mean shrieks). In moments of eyebrow raising stagecraft, we often wonder ‘how’d they do that?’ But believe me, we don’t want to know.

Trump jokes, too.

The Manhattan Theatre Club production of John Patrick Shanley’s “The Portuguese Kid” opened October 24, 2017 and continues through December 3 at City Center Stage 1

Sean Carvajal in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ’A’ Train

Sean Carvajal in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the A Train

Photo: Joan Marcus

With four plays opening in two days, it is not possible to give Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train the space it richly deserves. This new production of the 2000 play, at Signature Center, amply demonstrates the traits that earned the playwright an astounding Broadway debut in 2011 with Motherfucker with the Hat and a 2015 Pulitzer for Between Riverside and Crazy (and won’t someone please bring that production, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, back so more people can enjoy it). Guirgis writes street plays for street characters; the central pair in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train are murderers, incarcerated in the 23-hour lock-down wing on Rikers Island.

But don’t let that dissuade those of you who don’t regularly have much interest in Rikers plays. Time and again, in play after play, Guirgis surprises us with street-savvy but elegant prose, smart, lacerating and viciously funny; the opening sequence here, with Angel (Sean Carvajal) attempting the Lord’s Prayer but being hung up on the wording (“Howard be thy name?”) in a fusillade of profanity that’d make Mamet whimper, immediately demonstrates that there’s a poet at work, and a smart one. To wit: the brutalistic prison guard warns a prisoner that “if you decide to fuck with me, I will show you a world where mere misery is like toasting marshmallows ’round the campfire in your long johns.” We spend a significant part of the evening trying to keep up with the dazzling images that Guirgis sprouts from the mouths of babes.

The author also surprises us by the very nature of the crime: having failed at deprogramming his childhood pal, who has been indoctrinated into a street cult (i.e. the Unification Church), bicycle messenger Angel goes off and shoots leader “Reverend Kim” in the ass, which unaccountably proves fatal. So we have a decidedly sympathetic and non-murderous hero paired with confessed serial-murderer Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi). Carvajal and Gathegi both give chilling and human performances, under the assured hand of director Mark Brokaw. They are well supported by Erick Batancourt, as a friendly guard; Stephanie DiMaggio, as a legal aid lawyer; and especially Ricardo Chavira as the brutal jailer.

Guirgis is a tantalizing street poet, and we look forward to Signature’s May production of his 2003 play, Our Lady of 121st Street.

The Signature production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” opened October 23, 2017 and continues through November 19 at the Signature Center

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