To what lengths will a Carolina born and raised Southern Presbyterian woman go to impress the Jewish mother of her New Jersey born and raised husband? The answer: She makes the Seder dinner herself from start to finish, that includes grinding the fish to gefilte fish. To be totally honest, there was to be no repeat of this labor of love over the next 50 years, particularly as it was soon revealed to my wife that canned gefilte fish was doctored up by my mother to taste fresh.
So this critic had a hearty laugh recalling that personal memory shared by Catholic Italian New Yorker Giulia (Antoinette LaVecchia) during “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” in which she describes her decision to win the heart, body and soul of her Jewish boyfriend Ethan by preparing a traditional Seder dinner from scratch.
But the laughter has already been virtually non-stop since Giulia began in earnest the preparation and cooking of a three-course Italian dinner consisting of antipasto, green salad, and spaghetti Bolognese including wine that she will personally serve to the lucky (pay a little extra and you get to eat) couples seated at small tables to the left and right of her in a fully equipped, on-stage kitchen.
I will take it on faith that LaVeccia’s ability to engage us is a reasonable match for the real Giulia Melucci, whose written memoir has been adapted for the stage by Jacques Lamarre. Granted that this stage and kitchen-worthy entertainment is as much an excuse for a culinary exercise in timing as it is an often a tasty serving of heart breaks garnished with humor.
Although 40-something Giulia’s intention is to prove that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, it hurts to hear that despite being a charming and attractive woman with a definite affinity for the culinary arts, she hasn’t succeeded in landing a husband. But, under the direction of Rob Ruggiero, she keeps her humor-filled tales of misguided seductions by food moving briskly along with an attitude than can best be called appetizing.
A successful writer and publicist for Harper’s Bazaar, Giulia derives her passion for cooking from her Sicilian mother, whose sound and earthy advice is never more than a phone call, or two or three, away from her Brooklyn kitchen. A string of unfortunate relationships with a series of Mr. Wrongs from high school to the present is hopefully heading Giulia toward Mr. Right. Not having read her book, I can only assume that the ones picked out for discussion and dissection have been picked for how meaningfully they impacted her life.
The funny and futile stories that come trippingly off Giulia’s tongue are calculated to make us laugh, even as they also have an inherent poignancy tied to her frustration with not being able to get a man to commit for the long haul. They include, her first serious crush at 16 with Steve, a 20-year-old college student who dumps her because she won’t touch him “down there”. . . Kit, the Irish guy who would rather drink than eat . . . Ethan, the Jewish writer for television who couldn’t make up his mind . . . Marcus, the much older man and cartoonist for the New Yorker who sounded like Charles Nelson Reilly (her impersonation is spot on) whom she dates just for the sake of it . . . the Scottish writer (she captures that distinctive brogue) who deviously uses her to promote his novel . . . and Father Joel, whom she turns to as a confessor and who convinces her to try celibacy for three years.
In the kitchen, she may have a cabinet draw filled with souvenirs that are anecdotal trigger points; for example, a huge can of Foster’s Lager, a framed picture of a boyfriend’s ex girlfriend, and an ice cream scoop (don’t ask). However, it is the pasta machine that turns out to be the main object of our attention. It is Giulia’s primary tool notwithstanding her two-hour-and-10-minute monologue with an intermission.
As the pasta is kneaded and spread into shape to be sent through the machine to come out as spaghetti, we may wonder why we are supposed to care. But eventually Giulia makes us understand where her passion lies, and why she wanted the losers with whom she got involved to care. To quote her philosophy: “For me, a new boyfriend is an opportunity to show off the thing I am most confident about — my cooking.”
We begin to care even before she plunges the spaghetti (“not sticky like some relationships”) into the boiling water, removed al dente, and tossed into the aromatic Bolognese sauce. LaVecchia makes a stunning change between the acts: her tight jeans and boots are replaced by a stunning date-night red dress; her wavy brown hair gracefully freed from its pony tail. She makes her way around the bright (lighting by John Lasiter) and modern kitchen setting by John Coyne with an ingratiating vigor and assuredness.
She supports our hope that he who is coming to dinner is going to appreciate what he is getting. George Street audiences will certainly appreciate Giulia’s delightful misadventures in cooking and in courting.
I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, April 6, $20 to $67 show only. $72 to $102 with dinner. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.