Messina uses an interesting Pirandellian device which is only partially successful. Macchio plays Adult Carl Morelli, a playwright who wants to write about his youth and family. However, what he really wants to do is “fix it,” that is change the ending from what really happened that December. As narrator, he sits on the side of the stage while in a huge picture frame we see what purports to be his memories of Christmas 1979. He types on his laptop, gives cues to the actors, and yells “Delete!” when they ignore him – which they usually do. At times, he enters the action as the director, and at others has arguments with his younger self.
Whether the problem is that Young Carl (played by Nico Bustamante) is so much more colorful than who he grew up to be or that the real author (Charles Messina) hasn’t written much of a role for Macchio who is bland and colorless, the narrator role doesn’t do much for the play. Nevertheless, the family story on stage at the Abingdon is a vigorous, vital kitchen sink dramedy with the ring of truth. From the moment we meet the members of this family, we know them and their antics and problems as thoroughly as any American family presented on the stage.
It is almost Christmas Eve and ten-year-old Carl wants an Atari and a room of his own. His parents Dotty (Joli Tribuzio) and Peter (Johnny Tammaro) are broke. She steals from the bakery she works at but it isn’t enough to cover expenses like Carl’s parochial schooling. Peter who has a heart condition is unemployed. Carl and his father share one convertible sofa bed and his mother and teenage sister Jeannie (Kendra Jain) share another one. Living in such close quarters in such a squalid apartment, each of the Morellis compete to see who can have the foulest mouth and it sounds like Little Carl is winning. However, Dotty has an ace up her sleeve as to how she can improve the family’s fortunes. If she can only get Peter back with his rich sister Jean (Liza Vann) from whom he has been estranged for twenty years over the inheritance from their father, they might turn the corner. Peter just better not find out that Dotty has orchestrated this.
The most colorful character in more ways that one is Uncle Jackie (Cantone) who lives upstairs. A closeted gay man in a society that doesn’t accept him, he has become an angry, self-loathing misanthrope with a barbed tongue to match. Cantone gives a bigger-than-life performance that makes Jackie a truly memorable character. In the play’s quieter moments we find out what he has sacrificed all his adult life in order to remain in the old neighborhood and it is he who is keeping the family going with handouts that continually avert disaster.
Another memorable element in the play is the realistic setting by Brian Dudkiewicz. Cluttered, shabby, in need of painting, the Morelli apartment is so detailed that one could move into it – at one’s peril. Addison Heeren must be given credit for the props which populate the one-room setting. The pitch perfect costumes by Catherine Siracusa define the characters from Uncle Jackie’s Doris Day t-shirt to Aunt Jean’s full length fur coat and blue beaded dress. The sound design by Ian Wehrle includes the popular songs of the 1979 era.
Tribuzio makes Dotty the moving force in this family from her lying and shoplifting to defending her family with language that would make a sailor blush. As played by Tammaro, Peter is her passive-aggressive codependent. As the teenage sister, Jain makes us see that she will probably grow up to be her mother all over again. Vann’s Aunt Jean is an elegant portrait of the one that got away. And Bustamante is almost too small for his over-sized portrait of an angry kid who would like his family to be normal.
The title “A Room of One’s Own” is also an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s famous treatise in which she wrote that a private room was necessary in order to become a writer. We see the furnace in which Adult Carl was wrought as we watch the play about his family that he creates as an author. This is a play that will entertain you while you are in the theater and stay with you after you leave for its authenticity. In drawing upon the events of his childhood, Charles Messina has tapped a veritable wealth of treasure. But leave the children home!
A Room of My Own (through March 13, 2016)
Abingdon Theatre Company
June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.abingdontheatre.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission