First Nighter: Dan Lauria's 'Dinner With the Boys' Undernourished

Dinner With the Boys, written by Dan Lauria and at the Acorn, is a harmless enough comedy about the Mafia today -- not that Charlie, played by Lauria, is harmless. He's one of two made family members living in what the programs identifies as "the wilds of New Jersey." They've been exiled, you see, by a capo over a botched killing.

The other banished one is much admired gang cook Dom (Richard Zavaglia), but it's Charlie, who's slain a slew of men and by his admission one woman. Remorseless, he eventually defends himself by maintaining he only killed men (and the one woman) who had it coming to them. He never offed a child or mistakenly put an innocent bystander away. It's up to you to decide if your heart goes out to him.

So to begin with, patrons are asked to laugh at the shenanigans of a professed assassin as he bickers with good-hearted, creative chef Dom. Charlie, however, is the wise guy who attributes the first-class tomatoes and other vegetable grown in their postage-stamp garden to nutrients absorbed from the bones of the men's dead but erstwhile friend Leo, who was dismembered and buried there. (This isn't the sort of play in which anyone is just going to declare that New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes are always extra-special.)

From the get-go it's made clear that nobody with whom they're affiliated is going to forgive and forget their transgressions, particularly since Charlie and Dom spend time talking about Big Anthony Jr. (Ray Abruzzo), who's now running things with a tight hand. Big Anthony Sr. no longer runs things with his tight hand has moved on, you understand, and so it's not surprising when Junior appears at the cottage door. (Jessica Parks designed it to be nicely serviceable.)

Barging through the door in sleek black (Patricia E. Doherty designed the clothes), Big Anthony Jr. immediately hurls threat in between tossing compliments at Dom over the exquisite meal he's prepared. Mentioning that the boys back home believe Charlie and Dom have gone to their maker, Big Anthony Jr. announces he's dropped by to make certain they will shortly become as advertised on the other side of the river.

When he's done enough menacing, a plot turn eventuates that possibly would be surprising to audience members who aren't plot-wise. It serves to end the first act of this short two-actor and sends the second act into another direction that requires actor Abruzzo to appear in an altogether different guise.

If you ask me -- which nobody has -- Lauria springs his surprise too soon. He might have had more fun delaying it and seeing how Charlie and Dom take control of the situation as a team. But this is his play, and he's placed himself in the position of having to invent further second-act complications. Those he manufactures don't land especially well. Then, when he gets to the point where he needs to bring things to a close, he doesn't at all know what to do.

Frank Megna directed the three cast members (with a built-in surprise) to work at the top of their vocal and physical abilities. Given Lauria's combustible writing, there's nothing wrong with that, especially as their behavior is amusing when too much of the dialogue isn't.

As the second half gets underway and it looks as if Charlie and Dom might be able to return to their Brooklyn haunts, Dom decides that's not for him. He has ideas for Charlie and him that would make permanent their alliance and maybe even transform it into something more.

His implications -- never fully stated -- give Dinner With the Boys a suggestive undertone that never quite surfaces. Oddly, this is the second play to open here in a week or so -- A Queen for a Day is the other -- where fella-to-fella hanky-panky is hinted at, a circumstance that also figured at one juncture in The Sopranos. Is something going on that's not supposed to be going on between made men in the families? Just asking.