Over The River And Through The Woods debuted two years ago in the Berkshires where Curtainup first reviewed it. Elyse Sommer remarked then that with a good bit of diddling on the part of playwright, Joe Di Pietro and director, Joel Bishoff, its legs might just carry it to an Off-Broadway run. The diddling didnít happen-- itís still basically a sit-com, with occasional poetic moments-- but part of the prediction came true. It is now ensconsed Off-Broadway at the John Houseman Theatre -- around the corner from the West Side Theater where Di Pitro's spectacularly successful musical revue about young singles I Love You, Youíre Perfect, Now Change has been playing for over two years.
The good news is Joan Copeland, fresh to this production, who gives a quasi stellar performance in her role as grandma Aida. Although some believe that knowing the actorís techniques reduces audience enjoyment, Copelandís portrayal convinces even as it depends largely on her exaggerated mincing steps and the high-pitched sometimes desperate quality of her voice. Itís fascinating to watch her progress from ordinary housewife, extolled for her delicious and bountiful cooking and little else, to an extraordinary elder capable of real wisdom. Among other new cast members, Dick Latessa as grandpa Nunzio and Val Avery as grandpa Frank, add dignity to roles that could easily succumb to clichť.
Like two recent hits, Side Man and Visiting Mr. Green, (see links) Over The River is about bridging the generational chasm between young men looking towards the future and elders who feel cheated when their knowledge and experience goes unheeded. In one way or another, all three productions are about breaking away from the ties that supposedly bind. But the first two concern the oddities of dysfunctional families while this play deals with a so-called normal family suffering only everyday angst.
The focus is on a reasonably contented Italian-American immigrant family coming to grips with aging and the immanent departure of Nick, ( Jim Bracchitta), their beloved 29 year old grandson. Judging from the set, a row house in Hoboken, New Jersey, complete with sentimental wallpaper and overstuffed furniture, the play could be taking place any time from the 1930s to the 1990s -- the program identifies the time merely as "several years ago". Grandson Nick. with his eagerness to climb the corporate ladder and politically correct attitude towards women, is clearly poised on the brink of the milennium. His grandparents with their ethos that home-cooked pasta, cannoli and tiramasu provide the binder for a happy life, hark back to an era that Nick can never really know. Still, he is the ideal grandson, affectionate and loyal. Though his parents have moved to Florida, he never misses a Sunday dinner with his two sets of grandparents.
These familial feasts are accompanied by a constant crescendo of funny and not-so-funny non-sequiturs and gratuitous advice that strain even his devotion. His exasperation takes the form of raising his voice and rolling his eyes. Well, maybe thereís nothing else to do under the circumstances.
Somehow, both families smell treachery when Nick tries to make an announcement about an impending move. As if to drown out his voice Grandpa Frank repeats his mantra, "Tengo familia," an Italian expression for putting the family first. Like-minded Grandpa Nunzio considers revealing a tragic fact that will almost certainly force Nick to stay. All four grandparents are bent on finding a way to keep a young man from straying. Cherchez la femme. Accordingly, the grandparents hatch a plan. Grandma Emma supplies the single, unattached girl to lure Nick from leaving town and the play continues on its course until its surprising though pallid end.
Over The River And Through The Woods is often funny, sometimes sad and certainly not a wasted evening. Even with Ms. Copeland's terrific Aida and several other brisk portrayals, however, it isn't quite enough for a must list.
CurtainUp's review of the show's Berkshire debut
Visiting Mr. Green
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS
By Joe Pietro
Directed by Joel Bishoff
With :Val Avery, Jim Bracchitta, Joan Copeland, Marsha Dietlein, Dick Latessa, Marie Lillo
Scenery and Lighting: Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman
Costume Design: Pamela Scofield
John Houseman Theatre, 450 W. 42nd St. (212/967/9077)
Performances from 9/18/98; opening 10/5/98
Reviewed 10/08/98 by Ruth Gerchick
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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998