People’s World Review – SUNDAY DINNER serves “expert cast of actors in a moving play”

Come up to The Bronx and meet the Italian-American Matera family. They’re gathered ’round the dinner table in the first-floor apartment of their classic Bronx working-class row house one spring evening. They’re all there, every one of them a character and a half. The Materas are one family you won’t soon forget.

“When I first began writing this play,” writes author and director Tony Blake, “it was with the intention of telling an entertaining and nearly unbelievable true story about questionable behavior inside an otherwise honest, working-class family. But as the characters came to life, it soon became apparent that this was a family of flawed human beings that had more than just one secret lurking beneath the surface; and conflicts over religion and sexual orientation, subjects many families avoid discussing, could no longer be ignored. I suspect there are parts of this play that will make some people uncomfortable, but this is the truth of who these characters are. So, in answer to Richard Matera when he says, ‘You gotta decide if telling the truth is worth all the crap it’s going to leave in its wake,’ in this case I believe it is.”

Blake claims to have drawn his cast of characters “from his own experience,” setting their stories down in dramatic form after friends urged him over the years to record them. He changed the names “to protect himself,” as his program bio says. To his credit, although the Mafia is peripherally mentioned among the other Italian-American families the Materas are acquainted with, this family itself has pointedly avoided any direct connection to the Mob.

While not a kitchen-sink drama as such—the action has moved to the prim and slightly kitschy dining room and living room—the environment is all important. The neighborhood is changing: New waves of immigrants have moved in. The food they eat, the languages they speak, and the clothes they wear are all unfamiliar. Now that Grandpa has died—he lived in the apartment above—it’s time to move out, to Brooklyn, Connecticut or New Jersey, and unload this property which is rapidly decreasing in value.

Anywhere they move is going to be more expensive, so it becomes a critical question how to divide up the proceeds from the sale of this house. Will money exert a stronger pull on their behavior than their loyalty to family?

That’s the central question of the play (seen opening night, Jan. 16), but it comes wrapped in a whole cocoon of other issues both personal and familial: ancient sibling rivalries, lies, failures and flaws, jealousy, lust and illusion, PTSD, old vs. new theology, and I could go on.

Let’s meet the family. It’s a cast of seven. The central figure is Michael (James Tabeek), a trim, fine-looking young man who became a Jesuit priest and is just in from his post in Chicago, returning to his parents’ home a week or so after his grandfather died. Michael is struggling to decide how and when he’s going to inform his parents that he’s gay—and he has other surprises in store for them as well.

Soon after Michael arrives, his retired working-class father Eddie (John Combs) confesses to his priest son what he would like to paper over as a speedily absolvable sin, but is really more like a felony. Mom is Rose (Sharron Shayne), the standard-issue long-suffering, religiously observant wife and mother totally devoted to tradition and family, who it turns out does have an inner core of strength that few see from the outside. And there’s Rose’s sister Margaret (Michele Schultz), an embittered widow with nary a decent word to say about just about anyone.

Michael’s only sibling Richie (Kevin Linehan) came back from Afghanistan with some psychological damage, but it’s clear from what we learn about these family dynamics that he has been an abusive macho man for a long time—“not normal,” in Michael’s assessment. His ex-wife Diane (Meghan Lloyd) shows up unexpectedly, sparking up old fireworks not only with Richie but with Michael as well. Finally there’s cousin Flip (Dennis Hadley), whose father was Rose and Margaret’s older brother, and whose mother is now rather sickly.

It’s an effort to keep this family together. The fissures run deep. Michael has been away for some time, but for those remaining, what keeps them even talking with one another is the above-mentioned felony to which they’re all party.

How much sin, secrecy and shame can one family bear? Is there enough love and mutual regard to go on as before? Will knowing the truth heal or destroy? You will have noted already, Dear Reader, that I’m being purposefully evasive with the details so as not to be that dread Monster Plot Spoiler. It’s worth checking out this expert cast of actors in a moving play for yourself.

Since this is a world premiere, and thus potentially subject to revision before it receives a second production, I would indulge my critic’s privilege of offering a little advice. While Blake’s seven characters are all vivid, true and alive, for the most part they lack the deeper nuances that would make them more interesting.

Eddie, for example, is the ringmaster of the felony project, but we are asked to accept that his years of steady work at the utility company and putting food on the table and a roof overhead are adequately redeeming qualities. Rose does have one scene in which she reveals parts of her history that she has never shared with anyone, but somehow the personal strength she claims to have acquired years back does not reflect in her everyday behavior.

Michael is the good but tormented soul wrestling with his sexuality while serving as a Roman Catholic priest, but there is a kind of moral sanctity about him that is a bit cloying. As a Jesuit, he is very much in the pro-Francis wing of the Church, embracing what is for him personally a refreshing “liberation” theology. If he has “met someone,” as he says, it might have been sweet to hear him say something about the guy besides his first name and where he works. As for his brother Richie, he doesn’t seem to have any positive qualities at all.

Margaret is a one-note cynic, and Diane, the ex, has certainly been aggrieved but soon becomes tiresome. Flip is in some ways a pivotal character as someone whose future (as well as that of his mother) is about to be stolen out from under him, yet he retains a sunny bonhomie—until he doesn’t. His predicament illustrates the cruelty of a nation without universal healthcare. I don’t think his character needs an adjustment.

Act 1 is full of laugh-out-loud humor. We think we are enjoying a buoyant family dramedy with both its tragic and its comedic sides, sometimes so cleverly intertwined that we hardly know whether to giggle or sniffle. The after-dinner Act 2 turns utterly more serious, and the laughs disappear. It almost seems like a different play. The arc struck me as something like Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, a heavy Chekhovian farce with fatality.

I know these sound like damning criticisms, and I do hope the author takes another, closer look at his characters. Yet I believe he is onto something important and mostly right here, worth seeing for the really convincing acting, the tight ensemble, and the issues of both mythical and contemporary dimension that he addresses.

The set design is by the company resident Jeff G. Rack, who always turns in an impeccable stage picture—perhaps in this case just a touch too immaculate, with nary a stray garment or magazine left lying around. Michèle Young created the expressive costumes, and Brandon Baruch did the lighting design. The sound design by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski is saturated with cheesy Neapolitan and Italian-American provolone pop songs of the 1950s.