Full disclosure: Dan Lauria played the lead role in Adam’s Gifts, my (very different) take on A Christmas Carol. This will cause many to believe that this favorable review of his play, Dinner with the Boys, is a result of his helping me.
No. I saw and enjoyed Lauria’s play last September at New Jersey Repertory Company long before my director Michael Mastro said “You’d know who’d be great for your lead? Dan Lauria.”
Indeed he was. He’s also wonderful in Dinner with the Boys, now at the Acorn on 42nd Street, for there’s no better fit for an actor than the role he’s created for himself.
Lauria portrays Charlie, an Italian-American hit man for the you-know-what. (Hey, Mario Puzo never mentioned the M-word in The Godfather, so I’ll play it equally safe and avoid the five-letter proper noun.)
Charlie lives with his colleague Dom (Richard Zavaglia) in a standard-issue suburban New Jersey home. But set designer Jessica Parks is smart enough to adorn the walls with two items that have been found in many an Italian-American home: a framed photo of Frank Sinatra and a print of DaVinci’s “The Last Supper.”
Frankly, Charlie and Dom are a little worried that tonight may be their Last Supper. Although they’ve put in “over thirty years of faithful service to the family,” their boss was always Big Anthony. Now that he’s gone to his final non-reward, he’s been replaced by – who else? – Big Anthony, Jr., to cite one of the most delightfully oxymoronic names in recent memory.
Charlie and Dom are a low-rent version of Vladimir and Estragon, except these two wish they weren’t waiting for their God-awful new boss. We’ve all had employers who have scared us, but few can compare to the one that Ray Abruzzo brings to life. Big Anthony, Jr. expects – and gets – one of these two lackeys to rush behind him and ease his suit jacket off. When he goes to sit, there had better be someone as officious as a five-star restaurant waiter to ease the chair under his gluteus maximus.
We must find something thinner than a hair to describe Big Anthony, Jr’s worse-than-hair-trigger temper. Eruptions from the least reliable volcano are more predictable than ones from this mobster. And no sooner does he leave the premises than yet another threat shows up: The Uncle Sid. (Not “Uncle Sid,” mind you, but “The Uncle Sid.”) He both wears a rug and lies like one.
Those who fear that Dinner with the Boys picks on Italians would have to admit that the Jews get almost as much skewing. (By the way, at the curtain call, you may very well be surprised to find who plays The Uncle Sid.)
Well, if it is a Last Supper, it’s going to be a good one. Dom takes pride not only in his ability to cook, but also to anticipate the meal that Charlie will most want tonight. He is, in short, a good wife.
Entertaining the possibility that Dominic is a repressed gay is not out of line, although this sexual preference is not usually associated with this demographic. Yet when Dom tells a visitor that “Charlie and I take a walk after dinner,” notice the way he swings his right arm back and forth, the way overly lovesick teens do. Add to this a fine Katharine Hepburn imitation, and one’s suspecting that Dom is more gay than he knows is not out of the question – and part of the fun.
Not that Dom is ready to do “a gay tarantella,” to quote a lyric from Dean Martin’s 1953 hit “That’s Amore.” That standard, incidentally is one of the many vintage Italian-tinged songs heard before and after the show as well as during intermission. The panoply of recordings remind us that we haven’t had a good ol’-fashioned Italian chart-topping hit in a long time, be it a sincere one (“Arrivederci, Roma”) or a novelty song (“Pepino, the Italian Mouse”).
In addition to hearing Dean Martin’s Greatest Hits, we also hear Charlie and Dom nostalgically and indulgently recall their Greatest Hits. Playwriting teachers insists that their students “Show, don’t tell,” but we may be grateful that Lauria describes most of the murders for which these guys are responsible.
Director Frank Megna keeps the conversation between the two wonderfully matter-of-fact to show how inured they are to Murder One. Any violence shown is done with enough comedy to put it in the “What can you do but laugh?” category.
But Charlie and Dom decry school shootings. No, it’s neither half-assed logic nor a double-standard. They believe they only kill when someone “deserves it” or that “There was never one who didn’t have it comin’. We never hurt an innocent bystander.” Of course, taking the law into one’s own hands is not an issue that these guys want on the table – not when antipasti, bruschetta and chicken cacciatore could be there instead.
And yet, Lauria takes care to point out living this life wears you down. That when a man is late, there’s reason to believe that he’ll never show up, because someone has, shall-we-say, detained him.
When Charlie and Dom realize that this could be their last moment on earth leading to years under it, they have the world-weariness of those who have thought about this day many times in the past and now realize the day they’d accepted as inevitable has finally arrived.
It’s a rare comedy whose first act and final curtains get just as much laughter as immediate appreciative applause. Dinner with the Boys is twice-blest. Just as Mel Brooks in The Producers put forth that our best weapon against Hitler is laughter, Lauria shows us that the way to handle mobsters is to mock the lives they lead.
I hope that Lauria – or I – won’t get ourselves in deep trouble for saying so.