THE QUANDO SI SPOSA FUND
at the Roxy
A little less than midway into The Quando Si Sposa Fund, two little girls around the ages of five and seven mount the bandstand in the ballroom in which a wedding reception is being held and sing "Tomorrow." One twirls a baton and the other turns a cartwheel. When the bandmaster tries to make these adorable tots relinquish the stage, however, they refuse--one kicks him in the shins, in fact. He's forced to tuck one moppet under his arm and pin the other in a hammerlock while he calls for their mother.
This walk-on bit pretty much sets the maturity level for the other characters as well. The main action of the play takes place in the ladies' lounge off the reception hall, where Toni, her mother Louisa, and her grandmother Nonna squabble through what seems to be the entire reception over Toni's request to spend her dowry money--the quando si sposa ("when you marry") fund. Toni wants to use the money for a security deposit on a new apartment instead of her wedding, a nonimminent event despite enthusiastic promotion by both mother and grandmother.
This promotion takes some pretty pathological forms. At one point in the play Billy Gitale, the lead musician in the wedding band and a character slippery enough to have showered in Valvoline, intrudes on Toni and Nonna, apparently on the encouragement of Louisa, who spotted him as a bachelor and husband for her daughter. Now try to imagine a mother who would send a strange male into the ladies' room to sniff out her daughter. Try to imagine a nearly 30-year-old woman who was raised in New York City allowing this weasel to corner her--not once, but twice--and still keeping her polite smile. Try to imagine an old-country grandmother who utters not a word in protest. Now try to find this funny.
Toni resists the pressure to mate with remarkable patience. If this were a realistic social drama, she would have gotten pregnant out of spite at the age of 12, succumbed to the brainwashing and married at 16, or run far away from home at 19. Under extreme provocation, Toni does threaten to tell the wedding guests that she's a lesbian and that's why she's not married yet. If this were true, it would have provided an interesting twist to all this hormonal hysteria. But nothing is made of the idea, so I suppose we are to assume that she's making it up. Toni assures her elders that "29 isn't so old." Apparently it is not too old either to ask one's parents for money while vehemently declaring one's independence.
One might think that Nonna's late husband's having been a member of an anarchist organization and Louisa's having defied family tradition by marrying a Jewish man would make both of them a little more sympathetic to Toni's wish to buck tradition and become an artist. But one gets no sense that these women have learned anything from their experiences, either as individuals or as a family. Dramatic license could excuse the arguing at great length over matters that must have been discussed many times before, but not the almost complete lack of hierarchical recognition among the tribal members. These women are supposed to represent three generations that span some 70 years. But when they talk together, they all seem to be the same age--and a young and giddy age it is.
Well, maybe it's different when it's your family--Quando is said to be loosely based on playwright Ellen Byron's own Jewish-Italian background. But the family-through-fighting bonding process is awfully difficult to find in the situation-comedy froth. Director Betsey Cassell may have sensed this problem and opted to direct the play as pure slapstick farce, with the women mugging, screaming, dashing about in circles, and flapping their arms--they all drop to the floor, screeching in terror, when the lights are extinguished for the fireworks display on the terrace. This decision takes the characters even farther away from believable human beings and closer to Monty Python in drag, but at least we know, most definitely, that this is meant to be a comedy.
Cassell seems to have sidestepped the danger of creating offensive ethnic stereotypes by excising practically all of the characters' ethnicity. This is the first Italian wedding I've ever seen where I didn't hear a single note of "Che la Luna"--not even the clean verses. The Italian spoken in this play has none of the rhythms of that language and barely the pronunciation, though the characters sometimes speak so fast that even the English is lost in the rush. Buff Lee's Nonna, even with her black dress and silver rosary, resembles a muttering old Irishwoman more than a Mediterranean madrone, just as Anne Reifsteck's Louisa comes off very Yiddish and Gabrielle Young's Toni as all-American as Brooke Shields. This is not to say that these actresses do not play their roles well. Granted the TV-sitcom blandness of the characters, the mindless machinations of the plot, and the confined space of the Roxy's stage, Cassell and her three female stooges deliver energetic and enthusiastic performances. So does John Braun as the charmless Billy Gitale, about whom an Italian antidefamation league might have a complaint--if any of this could be taken that seriously. Braun and Cassell's set is the perfect fusty-elegant ladies' lounge, right down to the pink carpet and the gold-and-white slipper chairs--you can almost smell the floral room deodorant. The preshow music--a medley of 1950s Neapolitan hits in the Perry Como-Enzo Stuarti-Al Martino mode--sets just the right tone of vulgarity. One Mario Lanza would have been too much class.
Quando Productions, according to its press release, was founded by Buff Lee, Betsey Cassell, and John Braun "to create a theatrical production company which focuses on women in all aspects of the theater" and "to give women a better opportunity to hone their craft." Admirable goals for a group with much talent and potential, so long as those qualities are married to the right script.