Play Dead

The program of Italian Funerals & Other Festive Occasions tells us that the author, John Miranda, is an actor. The discerning audience member could have guessed that because plays written by actors usually share certain characteristics.

When actors take up the pen, the play tends to be sentimental. You can expect a couple of beautifully written speeches awash among the flotsam of pedestrian dialogue. There will certainly be some dancing--not for the audience, but in the lives of the characters--and, usually, a song or two. As writers, actors cannot resist the temptation to showcase their every skill. There will be heated confrontations between two characters that would serve as good audition pieces, even though the action of the play may not demand the pyrotechnics. Where the actor-written play usually suffers most is in structural integrity. A kind of addiction to the realism of the Fifties is not uncommon.

To be sure, there have been occasional plays that deserve attention, but the actor/author can seldom follow up with a body of work. Michael Cristofer, for example, was an actor who won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for his clumsily constructed The Shadow Box, but subsequent attempts were overshadowed. Actor Robert Schenkkan won the Pulitzer in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, but he now lives in Los Angeles, which everyone knows is no place for a writer. Actor Jason Miller will be remembered as much for his role as the priest in The Exorcist as for his 1973 Pulitzer for That Championship Season. Those three plays share some of the characteristics mentioned, but one thing Miranda's Italian Funerals is unlikely to share with them is a Pulitzer Prize.

Miranda's play is a structural nightmare. Like Herb Gardner's Conversations With My Father, this script is an autobiographical flashback to an ethnic childhood, only this time dominated by memories of the author's mother. Lacking Gardner's smooth artistry at seamlessly juggling past and present, Miranda often drops the bowling ball right on his toe.

The present takes place on the crowded apron of the stage that is meant to represent a mobile home during the three days before Christmas 1984. Apparently, in the mind of Miranda, there is no appreciable difference in "The Present" and 12 years ago. At one edge of the stage twinkles a fake Christmas tree, a sure harbinger of disaster in a stage set. With the exception of The Nativity, no great play has ever taken place at Christmas, perhaps because events are too extraordinary during the holiday season to represent life dramatically. From a tacky club chair down center, the narrator John will relentlessly address the audience. Some of what he will recall will be dramatized around a Formica kitchen table to his left, where his sister Brigida and his aged mother will act out the discovery that the 92-year-old woman is developing symptoms of a disease like Alzheimer's. Mama will admonish her middle-aged son to do his homework or altogether forget to some comic effect the identity of her daughter. Eventually, the main plot line tediously will emerge: Should the family members confine their gray-haired mama to a rest home?

But not before we indulge in every memory that can be dredged up to fill the high raked platform that dominates the ample expanse of stage with grotesquely distorted furniture, enormous drapery, gilded coffins and a gigantic painting--all of which represent what the program ominously refers to as "The Past."

In this murky netherworld of childhood memory, we will meet the author as an adolescent and be dragged through his first experience with death. The event is the demise of an ancient Sicilian crone, his grandmother, feared and loathed as a likely witch. When the old hag croaks, little Johnny celebrates with a quick rendition of "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz, a harmless transgression that nevertheless haunts the narrator with nagging guilt.

In a succession of scenes meant to be amusing, the kid will lose grandmother, favorite aunt and uncle, father and niece to the clammy clutch of the grim reaper. Of these only the vignette surrounding the suicide of his niece Andrea achieves any kind of dramatic interest. Andrea is given the most beautifully written of the obligatory set speeches when she describes a dream of a white horse with wings that flies her away from her mundane existence. That this "horse" is a metaphor for the heroin to which she is addicted "needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this." Once the addiction is introduced, can the overdose dramatically be far behind?

This pastiche of present and past is glued together with an excessive use of some of the most sublime music ever written, most of it from opera's most beloved arias. The family's Italian: Get it? This play can make you dread to hear the endless reprieves of "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Gianni Scicchi or "E Lucevan Le Stelle" from Tosca, which I would have thought impossible. To compound the crime, a young woman who barely could do justice to "Happy Birthday" is required to sing a cappella the exquisite "Vissi d'Arte," a formidable task few Metropolitan divas would dare attempt.

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