The questionable legitimacy of Eminent Domain can be explained in simple terms: It allows one private rich and powerful party to take the property from another poorer and less powerful private party. In a recent case, Kelo vs. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a small town in Connecticut had the authority to "take" the land and property of home and store owners by condemning it as "blighted," thus providing the way for businesses that would bring more tax revenue to the community. The ruling, putting at risk the constitutional sanctity of property (considered in the Fifth Amendment), is being challenged now on a state by state basis. Each state will have to decide if any branch of the federal or state government has the inherent power and/or right with Eminent Domain to "take" and transfer private land, as long as they pay for it, to for-profit purchasers, mostly corporations. Usually the most difficult issue in eminent domain cases is whether or not there was a "taking."
One may assume that 30 years ago when William Mastrosimone wrote "The Stone Carver," that the issue of Eminent Domain was not making as many headlines as it is now. The play has had a life in regional theaters and appeared in a production Off-Broadway under the title of "The Understanding" that Mastrosimone is on record as disapproving. However, after considerable rewrites, it made a return and an impact earlier this season at Trenton’s Passage Theater where Mastrosimone, a Trenton native, has had a long-time artistic relationship. (See review in U.S. 1, June 7.) It has now moved to the Soho Playhouse in New York, with performances through Sunday, September 3.
It is, of course, the topicality of play, in which an elderly stone carver is told by the local government that he must vacate the home he built with his own two hands, that supplies its social urgency. But it is also the fact that Mastrosimone has written a play drawn compassionately from his own family history that brings to it an intensified and passionate reality.
Mastrosimone was interviewed by Lucy Ann Dunlap for an advance story about the Passage Theater production (U.S. 1, April 19), in which he talks about how his father was a victim of Eminent Domain and how his father and others in America never fully recover from the experience. Mastrosimone uses his family history as a starting point for a fictional drama that unflinchingly reveals the private trauma that often results from "the public good." Mastrosimone, who is probably best known for his breakthrough play "The Woolgathers" (1981), the award-winning "Extremities" (1982), as well as the recent TV series "Into The West," has had one of his more recent plays, "The Afghan Women," optioned for Broadway.
In "The Stone Carver," Mastrosimone demonstrates how one family’s personal tale can be filtered through a committed social consciousness. Did anyone say Ibsen? Under Robert Kalfin’s robust direction, the tale is buoyed by its confrontational directness as it is by the sheer emotional integrity of the three actors.
Agostino Malatesta (Dan Lauria) has his single barrel shotgun loaded and is prepared to use it at the slightest provocation. He has chosen to ignore, let alone read, the convoluted eviction notice that was sent to him months ago by the state authorities. A widower, he lives alone in a limestone house that he built 30 years ago, the only dwelling in a four-block radius that hasn’t been razed by bulldozers. Within the kitchen area of his increasingly rat-infested home (grimly evoked by designer Nathan Heverin), he continues his work on a commission from a local church: a large sculpture of an angel whose face he has chiseled to resemble his wife, Emma. On occasion he feels Emma’s presence in the room and speaks to her lovingly, ignoring the reality that he knows is coming.
There is more anger than love expressed when he is visited unexpectedly by his estranged and only son Raff (Jim Iorio) and his fiancee Janice (Elizabeth Rossa). There is only bitterness between father and son since Raff decided not to carry on as the 18th generation of stone carvers. Raff, who is the owner of a masonry company and a member of the town council, also has plans to run for mayor. He has been allowed to cross the barricades and has been given the time to try to convince his father to leave the house before he is arrested. At the same time, Raff is doubtful that he can resolve a long-standing hostility that exists between them.
The core of the play involves the verbal and physical clashes between the tough inflexible old-world patriarch and the embittered son who, nevertheless, is resolved to help his father through the crises. But in the character of Janice, as played with nervy resolve by Rossa, we also see how an outsider, willing to take on a battery of slurs, insults, and humiliations, but unwilling to concede defeat, can win the heart and the mind of a presumed beast. When Janice presents Agostino with a bottle of French wine as a gift to her future father-in-law, he responds, "How can it be good? It’s French." Her comeback, "It’s 100 percent Medoc grapes from the same year," is countered by him with "It’s 100 percent bullshit."
Despite Agostino’s unmerciful but often very funny teasing, a slow and deliberately testy communication develops between them, even as Raff’s patience with his implacable father reaches a boiling point. That point comes with a real slam-bang of a fight between the two men. The play is as much about a father’s and a son’s need to release long-repressed anger as it is about the empowering ability of courage and conviction, often at war with each other. Jim Iorio is terrific as a chip off the old stubborn block, even as he hopes, possibly in vain, for his father’s approval.
For a while, it seems that Agostino has only his rage and his choice put-downs in his native Italian as a tool. But it is a powerful deception and one that soon becomes the only defense of a once proud man who feels let down by his family, his community and even the country he loves. Dan Lauria, who is most recognized as the father on the ABC series "The Wonder Years," heartbreakingly shades Agostino’s unleashed furies with the regrets of things and times past. It is a touching performance, one that leaves us saddened not by what we leave behind in our lives but by the thought that no one else will ever cherish them. ***
"The Stone Carver," through Sunday, September 3, Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, between 6th and Varick. $45 to $55. Visit www.sohoplayhouse.com or call 212-691-1555.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.