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.

After chewing the cud of all those memories of death that choke our narrator into paralysis, the only question supposedly propelling the plot forward is the burning dilemma: Will the son accede to his beleaguered sister's pleas to commit the senile old mother to a rest home? Why not? It's Christmas.

As for the production, director Michael D. Mitchell once again forces actors to perch on a kitchen table for an intimate conversation, directs actors to play to the audience rather than to one another, and passes by available chairs for a favored center position, even when helping an ailing patient to a seat.

As the narrator, Nicolas Glaeser is unsurprising in an unremarkable role, while Jason Adam Cox verges on the inept as his younger doppelganger. Sylvia Vizcaya is refreshingly steady as sister Brigida, but Robyn Ferracane cannot make the transitions believable between her 92-year-old self and her midlife incarnation.

Rusty Ferracane is a bland but credible Dad, a barber who begs his son never to become beholden to the Mafia, a promise broken when John must beg a "Big Man on Hester Street" to intervene with the Catholic Church to get his father's burial ground blessed by a priest. Improbably, Mitchell has staged this scene with the Mafioso don (weakly played by Charles Sohn) pacing the stage, leaning on a cane during the requested audience.

It is only the artistry of Michelle Konevich that redeems the evening from a total lack of dramatic integrity, with her convincing and harrowing depiction of Andrea, the addict. Jeffrey Thomson's setting is uncharacteristically unfocused, both too literal and simultaneously too abstract, a homage more to the Spanish architect Gaudi or Salvador Dali than to anything Italian. Doing double duty as designer of lighting, Thomson provides blatant pools of hard-edged light that frequently seem to illuminate the actors from the neck down.

Miranda's slipshod dramatic construction leaves audience members wishing someone had read them their right to remain silent, as the intended hilarity of this moribund piece leaves us agape with disbelief. Unlike the funerals Miranda regurgitates, this is not a festive occasion at Phoenix Theatre, now celebrating its 75th season with this hardening of the artistry.

Italian Funerals & Other Festive Occasions continues through Sunday, May 19, at Phoenix Theatre, Central and McDowell.

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Marshall W. Mason