Joe DiPietro's Over the River and Through the Woods Is a Funny, Sensitive Slice of the '90s

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From time to time, I've noticed that a play called Over the River and Through the Woods is being presented by some community theater that's known for sticking to very traditional, family-friendly musicals and comedies. (We have more than one theater like that in the Valley.) And the title's made me think that it might not have a lot to offer, and then I'd find something that sounded more interesting to see for you that week.

The title's also led me to assume that the action takes place around Thanksgiving. Or during a big event, with a cast of dozens. Not only is neither of those things true, but OTRATTW is a fun show, and it's by Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics of All Shook Up (another really fun show I'd never heard of before I saw it) and who has started doing things like winning a Tony for Memphis, a show everyone wants to see.

DiPietro also wrote the musical version of Troma Entertainment's The Toxic Avenger and an all-male version of La Ronde called Fucking Men (best title ever!). He probably should have been famouser sooner.

OTRATTW (currently being presented by Hale Centre Theatre) is from the early, obscure, playwright-in-the-making part of his career. A straightforward story of the pros and cons of fiercely close family, it premièred in the Bronx in 1994 and very sensibly made its bones in the Italian-American community before winning the hearts of a nation.

One aspect of the script that reveals DiPietro's relative inexperience is his characters' tendency to confide in the audience with borderline tedious monologues that occur outside the time and space of the play's plot. But the precision acting of the cast, directed by retired ASU theater professor Don Doyle, makes those moments tolerable, even charming.

Kevin Herrmann plays Nick, a young single man who's managed to be the only member of his family who's still geographically convenient to his two sets of Italian-American grandparents in suburban New Jersey. He loves them and sees them every Sunday for dinner, but they also drive him a little crazy.

When Nick's famiglia hears that he might be moving to Seattle for work, they conspire to introduce him to a nice Catholic girl in hopes that he'll be so smitten that he stays nearby. Then, you know, stuff happens, and to DiPietro's credit, it's not all the stuff you might expect.

My biggest, almost only problem with the show is Herrmann's performance. Before he comes to appreciate his elders, listen to them more closely, and build a more profound and functional relationship, Nick is somewhat annoying in the way he ridicules and takes them for granted -- and he's supposed to be. But Herrmann, while making Nick rather natural and believable, also makes him annoying every damn minute -- so it was hard for me to root for our story's protagonist. Much of the challenge, I would imagine, is inherent in the text.

The entire ensemble, however, is beautiful together, giving a sweet and seamless impression of people who've been close for decades; David Dietlein and Brad Alger's set, and Pamela Oborn's costumes, are simple but meaningful; and the script is full of good, clean laughs. For example, it's frustrating for Nick that his relatives in their 80s can't understand answering machines, VCRs, or the "right" way to play Trivial Pursuit.

That situation had comic potential in 1994, but who knew it would continue to have comic potential right up to this very minute? At least a handful of people in the audience have an entire new generation of relatives in their 80s (many of whom were also in the audience) who still don't understand VCRs or answering machines and see no reason to upgrade to not understanding cell phones, voice mail, TiVo, and Netflix.

The script also has a lovely message to think about: Maybe as each American generation tries to make life easier and more prosperous for the next, we're also giving our descendants a pack of new complications to worry about. Maybe we should pause to appreciate time-honored traditions and simple pleasures. Maybe you should just set aside an afternoon or evening to head out to downtown Gilbert for a leisurely meal and a nice, normal play. It actually feels a few degrees cooler there, too.

Over the River and Through the Woods continues through Saturday, July 9, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue in Gilbert. For tickets, $22, click here or call 480-497-1181. Note that Hale's evening curtain time is 7:30 p.m.

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