Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 2, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Over the River’

I am a man. I’m doing well for my woman and my

children.

I have a reason for being alive."

This is how Frank tries to explain the concept of "Tengo

Famiglia"

to his ambitious young grandson Nick, in Joe DiPietro’s bittersweet

comedy "Over the River and Through the Woods," now onstage

at The Off-Broadstreet Theater through January 19. But for Nick,

finding

meaning in life by satisfying his family’s needs is a bit myopic.

Like many modern Americans, he is interested in some of the more

tangible

fruits of success — like fame, wealth, and power.

Drama is built on conflict, and one of the more prevalent conflicts

of modern life is balancing the demands of family and career.

DiPietro’s

script isn’t particularly innovative. But Off-Broadstreet turns a

potentially hackneyed storyline on its tail by filling it with some

hardy performances that ring with fresh detail and subdued joy.

Nick Cristano (Brendan Scullin), like many young people scurrying

up the ladder of career success, takes his family for granted. In

this case, his family consists of his four very-Italian grandparents,

Frank and Aida Gianelli (Doug Kline and Carole Mancini) and Nunzio

and Emma Cristano (Marty Sherman and Helen Stafford). He loves them,

but paying them too much attention is a bit of a chore. Like a bottle

stored on a shelf, Nick treats them like they’ll always there when

he needs them. Although the rest of the family has moved away to more

exotic places like Florida or the western United States, Nick has

remained in his hometown of Hoboken, habitually visiting his lovable

grandparents a week for Sunday dinner.

But this particular Sunday is different. Nick has just been offered

a big promotion with his company and is set to announce the good news

to his grandparents. Unfortunately, when they hear that the job is

in Seattle, all four grandparents are less than enthusiastic. They

concoct an unscrupulous, but well-intentioned, plan to keep their

grandson home by setting him up with Caitlin O’Hare (Kristen

Dabrowski),

a lonely sharp-tongued Irish lass.

But when love doesn’t immediately blossom, Nick folds under the stress

of it all, suffering a panic attack in his grandparents’ living room.

While convalescing, Nick gets to know his grandparents more deeply

through a series of heart-felt conversations about the good old days

of their youth and vigor. But after his recovery, Nick continues his

preparation to move west and the grandparents begin to reluctantly

accept the inevitability of Nick’s move.

But Grandpa Nunzio has a secret ace up his sleeve. He has recently

learned he is suffering from advanced cancer and is prepared to inform

Nick of his grave condition, hoping to persuade his grandson to stay.

Ethical or not, the play hinges on the difficult choices that people

must make in the name of love.

Brendan Scullin gives a nice performance as Nick Cristano. It is a

difficult role in that Nick must remain likable to the audience even

as he tries to escape from underneath the weight of his equally

likable

grandparents. Scullin has a knack for wringing the most comedy out

of DiPietro’s script. He also bolsters his performance with a rich

array of good-natured winks, nods, and ironic eye-rolling reminiscent

of Jerry Seinfeld and Dick Van Dyke. His performance does clink and

rattle a bit during some of his character’s more emotionally demanding

moments, but Scullin is certainly a gifted actor.

Although the parts of the grandparents, as written, are nearly

interchangeable,

Doug Kline, Carole Mancini, Marty Sherman, and Helen Stafford do

extract

enough quirky comedy out of their roles to avoid being labeled

stereotypes.

Stafford in particular, performing with a bad cold that left her voice

as raspy as Peter Falk’s Columbo, was able to use her affliction to

add some comic nuance. Kristen Dabrowski in a small part as the

flighty

Caitlin O’Hare has a unique, somewhat detached, stage presence that

injects a sense of foreboding early on into the show.

The fact that the actors are able to transmit their sheer pleasure

of performing, even in the play’s saddest moments, is no doubt due

to the carefully arranged direction of Robert Thick. He is an actor’s

director, and he empowers the cast, allowing them to concentrate on

their craft while he takes care of details like blocking, pacing,

and where to stand in order to be seen in the best light. The back

and forth family banter and easy physical action that run throughout

the play may seem unplanned, but in fact are very difficult to

achieve.

This is a big feather in Thick’s cap.

Most people are not surprised to hear the statistics showing that

Americans are spending more time working and less time with their

families. It seems that one’s sense of family is getting to be one

of those subjects you’re not supposed to talk about in polite society,

like sex, religion, and how much money you make. "Over the River

and Through the Woods" is hardly profound, but it is a fun show,

and it is certainly better than working. Gather up the family,

including

the grandparents, and check it out.

— Jack Florek

Over The River And Through the Woods, Off-Broadstreet

Theater , 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Weekends

through January 19. $22.50 & $24.


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