The set up:
Heartwarming. It's either a cringe worthy descriptor that has you running for the hills or it's the sweet dollop of honey in your cup of tea. In theater it generally means lightly comedic storytelling that tugs on our personal relationship heartstrings and leaves us feeling better about mankind as a whole. Playwright and lyricist Joe DiPietro not only knows the genre well, he knows how to make it work. His 1996 smash hit musical comedy about finding and keeping a mate, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, holds the title of the second longest running show Off Broadway. (In case you were wondering, The Fantasticks holds the No. 1 spot with a 42-year run.) Over the River and Through the Woods, DiPietro's 1998 semiautobiographical show, once again plants feet firmly in humorous heart stringy territory, but this time it's the grandparent/grandchild relationship that's put on a chaffing plate to be served up warm and gooey to us. Cue the tears, cue the laughter, it's going to be one of those nights in the theater.
Playwright David Mamet once described a problem play as "melodrama cleansed of invention." While I doubt highly that Mamet went to see or was referring specifically to DiPietro's staged grandparent opus, the observation is nonetheless bang on. There is nothing in Over the River that is not painfully obvious, overly plotted, emotionally broad, dated in its humor or safe as a child-proof lid. This is a show that throws a warm blanket over our sit-com manufactured tastes and offers up a small buffet of what we're already comfortable with. A little laugh, a little cry, a little chance to project our own familial regrets while taking solace in the fact that everyone's family is a bit nutty. And yet at the heart of it, once you get past some questionable direction, bouts of overly broad acting and a script dripping with cliché, Over the River does have the whiff of a surprisingly compelling and thought provoking message.
All this is presented to us through Nick (Louis A Crespo Jr.) a dutiful but resentful grandson who visits his New Jersey Italian grandparents every Sunday for dinner. Both sets that is, as his mother and father's parents are neighbors, friends and Sunday meal companions. There's Frank and Aida (Scott Holmes and Jeanette Sebesta) first generation Americans who started from scratch and made a nicely modest life for themselves. Dinner is in their home (handsomely designed by John Stevens and David Hymel), which Frank, a carpenter, built himself and Aida fills with food, food and more food. Then there is Nunzio (John Stevens) and Emma (Anne Boyd), described by Nick as the loudest people he's ever met. Really it's Emma who's the squaker, bickering to show her love and tossing out opinions like Christmas candy. The older couples all might be diffused by the presence of the rest of their kids and grandkids, but the offspring have scattered to other cities, leaving only 29-year-old Nick to deal with the oppressive questions and needs of his parent's parents. Namely, when is he going to get married and start a family?
In true TV Guide synopsis fashion, it all starts falling apart when Nick announces that he's been promoted to a job in Seattle and will be leaving in a few weeks. Rather than be happy for him, the grandparents hatch a scheme so shallow in its narrative development that I'm almost embarrassed to tell you about it. Don't shoot the messenger here, but yes, they find a girl, Caitlin (Theresa Hunt), invite her to Sunday dinner and hope that Nick falls in love with her and decides not to leave. Really? I mean , c'mon, I don't care what side of the heartwarming divide you are on here, this feels neither funny nor true. Even more so when DiPietro peppers the plot with the kind of dialogue that has Gramps Frank turn to Nick at dinner and demand voce alta, "Say something attractive to Caitlin!"
Truth is the entire first act is an exercise in , 'who really says or does that' on all sides. None of it is helped by David Hyme's direction which affords his cast a kind of dialogue deafness allowing them to play either over the top or utterly unengaged. None of the cast seems to be actually talking to each other. Rather we get the sense that all are to various degrees waiting for their lines in order to perform with some kind of pseudo Italian American sass. They go through the hand waving and the yelling and the stereotypical moments (not knowing how to use technology, forcing food on everyone, horror that Nick would actually see a shrink), but it all feels like play acting to us resulting in amused but disengaged viewing.
The worst of the lot is Crespo's Nick who is so stiff in his various physical attempts to show angst and frustration that it looks as if he's engaged in some kind of theatre school Voguing. Even if you close your eyes to his robotic on stage presence, you can't get away from his volume level. Unmodulated is the name of Crespo's acting game here as he yells, screams and shouts at his grandparents for the entire first act. Frustration can be shown in many ways on stage but decibel loud is what's on offer here and it's not only headache-worthy, it's tiresome in the extreme. I don't care what blood lines tie you together, if this is the way a grandson behaves around his family, you can't convince me that there is any true love or affection there outside of circumstance. And if we don't believe there's love on stage, what are we watching?
Only Holmes as Frank, the emotional but unable to fully express himself grandfather breaks through and delivers an unshowy performance worth noting. Holmes accomplishes what the others cannot, true warmth and subtlety that shines beautifully as he tells Nick about his own emotionally wrought journey to America and how he learned to make amends with his own father. It's a blessedly quiet moment in DePietro's script that finally lets us believe there are family bonds at work.
So what of the nugget I mentioned? Well that comes in the second act, which thankfully does take it down a few notches. Following a panic attack and a trip to the emergency room, Nick recuperates at Frank and Aida's house, giving him quality time to actually get to know all of them. DiPietro throws in some genuinely funny scenes here. A Trivial Pursuit game gone off the rails is a wonderful generation gap gag. But once again, it's a quiet moment that grabs our attention. Emma approaches Nick with the idea that maybe they've all given him too much, damning him to a life that is never satisfactory. After all, the grandparents didn't have much, but look how happy they are. "What is a good life", she asks? "Is wanting and getting more better or just different?" The echo of this pithy question lingers for a moment but is then quashed by a hackneyed turn of events that's been alluded to all show. Let's just put it this way, it's a story with aging grandparents, you just know that not all of them are going to make it to the end of the play. Fair to say the resulting sniffles heard from the audience in these moments were more Pavlovian than earned, but still credit should be paid to DiPietro for not belaboring his emotional manipulations to the extreme. This is a script with far too many excesses, but thankfully lengthy death scenes with mourning wails are not one of them.
The verdict: Over the River and Through the Woods is an allusion to a poem made into a Christmas Carol about the excitement of traveling to one's grandparent's house to enjoy food and fun and family on Christmas Day.
Over the river and through the woods And straight through the barnyard gate. It seems that we go so dreadfully slow; It is so hard to wait.
It's telling that one stanza of a silly song can evoke more feelings of family love and connection that DiPietro's two-hour play could muster. Hearts be on notice, you certainly won't walk away cold, but warmed may be too much to expect here.
Over the River and Through the Woods continues through May 2 at Theatre Southwest, 8944A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets via email at [email protected] or by phone at 713- 661 9505. $15 - 17.