Visiting the family can be fraught, but consider the unique plight of a priest. Between provocations about church scandals and requests for absolution, the pressure can be high. (At least they don’t have to endure those “When are you having children?” questions.)
In the world premiere Sunday Dinner, written and directed by Tony Blake and now on stage at Beverly Hills’ Theatre40, Father Michael (James Tabeek) returns from Chicago for a visit to his Italian-American family in New York. The Materas have lived in the Bronx so long they resent the “immigrants” squeezing them out. They’re planning to move, but are unsure where to go. The inheritance from a recent family member’s death will have an effect, as will the aging relatives’ inability to drive if they end up in New Jersey or Connecticut.
Once Michael arrives from the airport, his mother Rose (Sharron Shayne) and her sister Margaret (a feisty Michele Schultz) prepare the meal while his father Eddie (John Combs) pulls him aside for a chat. It turns out Eddie’s gotten into some shenanigans and wants his son to absolve him.
Michael has a few other things on his mind. He doesn’t come home planning to come out, but his sexual orientation is revealed to one family member – and this isn’t a family that’s good at keeping secrets.
Some of the political and neighborhood references feel dated. It’s hard to believe there’s an Italian-American family left in The Bronx that is still surprised at the influx of “immigrants,” or unaware their son is gay. They’ve lived through the divorce of their other son, Richie (Kevin Linehan) from Diane (Meghan Lloyd). They’ve seen a few things.
Fortunately, the action focuses on the family dynamics and those relationships all ring true, as does blaming Ellen DeGeneres for “everybody saying they’re gay.” This is a compelling work that will make you feel like a part of a family hopefully more dysfunctional than your own.
Kevin Linehan and Sharron Shayne are standouts in the ensemble cast, with a depth that adds insight to their characters and the family as a whole.
The music, by Jerry Vale, Dean Martin, and of course Sinatra, sets the tone before and between acts. The costumes by Michele Young perfectly capture the characters and their relationships to each other. Michael and his father each wear plaid shirts, but Michael’s is fitted and crisp while Eddie’s is loose and schlubby. Makeup and wigs by Judi Lewin add the perfect note, especially to the female characters. The set, by Jeff G. Rack, puts the family squarely in their Bronx rowhouse.
It’s the next best thing to being at a Sunday dinner with your own family.