Just before the lights came up for the curtain call of the performance
I attended of Passage Theater’s production of William Mastrosimone’s
"A Stone Carver," I could hear people around me sniffling. The pollen
count was high that day, but I’m pretty sure that a sudden onset of
allergies was not the cause of these sniffles; people were crying.
I don’t usually write about the audience’s response when I’m reviewing
a show, but for this play – the final production in Passage’s 20th
anniversary season – the audience response encapsulates what worked
about the production: it had soul.
Even when a show is technically well-crafted, that doesn’t necessarily
mean that it will be moving or entertaining. I experienced this
recently when I went (not wearing my reviewer’s hat) to see a play
that had been lauded by fellow critics and friends; the show was
beautiful to look at, and it offered an interesting new take on a
classic play, but my friend and I both agreed at intermission that
there was not enough soul to really grab hold of us and make us go
back to our seats for the second act.
In spite of some flaws – which I believe lie primarily with the script
– "A Stone Carver" has plenty of soul, and that, I suspect, is what
the audience was responding to at the Friday night preview performance
I attended. And the soul of Passage’s production is actor Dan Lauria.
Lauria is known best for his role as the gruff but lovable father on
TV’s "The Wonder Years," but he has also spent years on the stage, and
he has used his celebrity to champion and support professional
regional theaters – having graced the stage in New Jersey several
times, including George Street Playhouse’s productions this season of
the raucous "Inspecting Carol" and the powerful and disturbing "The
"A Stone Carver" is, in essence, a one man show with two supporting
performers. Lauria’s Agostino Malatesta is an Italian immigrant, the
seventh generation in his family to be a stone carver. His profession
is sacred to him, as are most of his old school beliefs. But in spite
of his commitment to his craft, Agostino’s way of life is being wiped
away, literally and figuratively. And his son, Raff, is the messenger
of the bad news.
As the play opens, Raff (short for Rafael) is coming to see his father
– after several years of inattention – in an effort to convince him to
leave his home cum carving studio to make way for "progress," thanks
to the state’s eminent domain over the property, on which it plans to
build a freeway off-ramp. Agostino is the last hold-out in his
unidentified New Jersey neighborhood; bulldozers are closing in.
Raff’s coming to try to talk some "sense" into his father, who is in
danger of being dragged out in handcuffs; after numerous notices from
the town council alerting him that his house will be destroyed to make
way for the ramp, and if Agostino does not leave on his own, the
police will be called in. But Agostino is not budging. He has lived in
this stone house that he built with his own two hands most of his
adult life. It is the house he shared with his late wife – the woman
whose face he carves on all the stone angels he has created for the
town churches, and on the one that he is nearing completion on in the
beat-up kitchen. He has armed himself with a gun, a bit of food, and
he is digging in for a fight.
And it seems the fight will be with Raff. Because Raff (Jim Iorio) is
not just the messenger of the bad news, he’s an up-and-coming member
of the city council, and, as his fiance, Janice (Elizabeth Rossa),
informs Agostino proudly, Raff is about to run for mayor in the next
election. "And he’s going to win," she says. Convincing his father to
walk away from his home now would put Raff in an even better position
with his fellow politicians, and he is determined to do it even if it
means facing the old man and the demons that lurk between them.
Unfortunately, there is little about Iorio’s performance that makes it
seem like this man is a true political up-and-comer. Beginning the
play with a chip on his shoulder – and ending with the very same chip,
just ground down slightly – he doesn’t exhibit the charm or passion
that would make Raff the kind of man who would win votes. And the
connection with his fiance is weak.
As Raff’s fiance, Janice, Elizabeth Rossa gave a more convincing
performance. As the fish out of water in this very Italian home with a
lot of unresolved issues, she wades cautiously and gains confidence as
she begins to see a way through the minefield that the Malatesta men
have made of their relationship.
Set in the 1970s, the timeframe in which Mastrosimone wrote the play,
the set boasts kitchen appliances with a very Brady color scheme, and
Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costumes have a decidedly ’70s look to them (a
powder blue, three-piece "leisure suit" on Janice, and on Raff a
three-piece suit with a patterned wide tie that clashes with his
striped shirt). As the press materials from the theater say: this play
"could be ripped from today’s headlines of eminent domain and urban
redevelopment." Agostino’s story could be happening today, so why keep
the play set in the ’70s?
And while William Mastrosimone is a venerated playwright, the script
of "A Stone Carver" is a bit formulaic: curmudgeonly father and
estranged son clash over big issues and a complicated history with a
lot at stake. And we see the conflicts and plot turns coming a mile
away. Will Agostino learn of his son’s ulterior motives for getting
him to leave his home? Will they come to blows? Will Raff and Janice
start out on the same "side" and wind up clashing over how to handle
things? When those little glasses of wine that Agostino pours for
Janice in a symbolic gesture of his disapproval get filled higher and
higher (getting her tipsier and tipsier), will he warm to her and she
to him? Will there be a detente between the Malatesta men?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and you betcha, yes.
And yet, with Dan Lauria as Agostino, and with Passage Theater’s
intimate setting, this play comes alive and rises above any weaknesses
in the script. As Lauria plays him, patriarch Agostino is a tragic and
soulful character with a story worth witnessing. How can you not
giggle along with Agostino when he devilishly catches Janice in one of
many (rather nasty) practical jokes in an effort to goad her? His
amusement in his own ability to catch the buttoned up Janice
off-guard, and then to slowly embrace her because of how she handles
the "jokes" (and him) is enough to have us forgive him his nastier
inclinations. And how can you not get choked up when, in his fractured
English, Agostino defends his reason for fighting to save this home:
"Your mother is in this house, her hand touch this switch, her feet
touch these stairs." This is his home with a capital H, he tells his
son – he built it with sweat, craftsmanship, and love. It is not
simply a house.
Lauria rules the stage the entire time he is on it – all but about two
minutes of the hour and a half play that has no intermission. When
you learn that he suffered from a back injury during (an enflamed
nerve around a disc) the third week of the rehearsal process, it’s all
the more reason to admire the actor’s stamina in this demanding role.
`The collapse occurred at the beginning of the third week of
rehearsal," producing artistic director June Ballinger wrote me via
E-mail of Lauria’s injury. Once it was clear that the injury was going
to have him out of commission for a while, the (very small) staff of
Passage Theater worked overtime doing damage control – getting an
extension on their Equity contracts (the actors union) and making
adjustments to the marketing and PR campaigns. They called patrons and
they asked the press to hold off on running feature stories.
Ballinger says that the generosity and understanding of her staff and
creative team made all the difference in keeping things going in spite
of the postponement. "We lost some large group sales," says Ballinger,
"some feature stories were killed, and there was some patron
confusion." But, she says, "these are always risks in professional
theater. Regional theaters rarely, if ever, have understudies. This
kind of thing can happen any time, anywhere." The time away didn’t
really hold them back, she says. Once Lauria was up and around again
"we just moved forward," she said. And how did Lauria manage during
all of this? "You have to make Dan take a break! He is indefatigable."
And with a show that rests almost entirely on his shoulders, it’s a
good thing that he is.
"A Stone Carver," through Sunday, June 18, Passage Theater, Mill Hill
Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Thursday and Friday
at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. $25. 609-392-0766