What a shame that most stage fans will probably miss Hale Center Theatre's Over the River and Through the Woods rather than drive the dozens of miles to this shiny new playhouse in (gasp!) far-off Gilbert. Joe DiPietro's bittersweet, sometimes witty comedy is enlivened by a topnotch cast that reads his sometimes-hackneyed dialogue as if it were Ibsen, and that manages to make his bummer of a windup into something less dreary.
The story centers on Nick (Bisk Consoli), a young marketing executive who spends every Sunday with his two sets of grandparents in Hoboken. These are old Italian people straight out of Central Casting: One's a tale-spinner (Joe Nuttall); his wife (Maria Sancho) is a persistent matchmaker; the other Grandma (Barbara McGrath) has never met a problem she couldn't solve with a plate of pasta. When Nick announces that he's accepted a job in Seattle, both sets of grandparents see it as abandonment -- of family, of tradition, of their love for their grandson. They set about trying to persuade him to stay by setting him up with a young woman (Kristina Rogers), but mostly by hollering and waving their arms around a lot.
This is a family comedy, which means everyone's a wiseacre and the jokes are sitcom-standard. Its setups and punch lines are funny, but never really hilarious, although on the night I was there, the audience was wetting its pants over some pretty average material. (Sample: "She's a vegetarian." "A what?" "An animal doctor." Insert shrieks of wild laughter here.) And DiPietro's script is forever knocking down the fourth wall with cute asides and speeches made directly to the audience -- an annoying device made twice as bothersome here because Hale Center is built for theater-in-the-round, so we're always, at some point, watching one actor or another's backside while they speak to the audience on the other side of the room.
That said, Over the River is never less than amusing. That's mostly because director Don Doyle has cast a roomful of people who can play big without overplaying. I'd be hard-pressed to single out one performer in this show, but, held at gunpoint, I'd choose McGrath, whose cranky, pasta-pushing granny is some kind of revelation. She brays comedy with high style and, called on to cry, she weeps as if her heart will break. Consoli's warmly comic performance is a close second, although he's often upstaged by Bob DePalma as Nick's maternal grandfather Frank Gianelli, whose animated, sometimes comic portrayal reminded me of every old Italian guy I've ever known. It's that sort of subtle familiarity -- and a crowd of clever players who can sell the simplest line -- that makes Over the River and Through the Woods worth a drive to the boonies.
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