For a minute, just forget about John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and deeply serious Doubt. When you really think about many of his other works, what a romantic he turns out to be. He has a recurring thing about getting couples together and/or keeping them that way. For some instances, there are the early Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, the original Moonstruck screenplay (for which he won an Oscar) and, more recently, Outside Mullingar (for which he was Tony-nominated).
More often than not, the men and women he brings together can’t wait to get away from one another as quickly as possible. That’s to say: they don’t meet cute. Their battling, however, only clues the audience to an eventual happy ending, no matter how metaphorically bloody their initial encounters.
This couldn’t be truer of The Portuguese Kid, now produced Off-Broadway, courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club, at New York City Center’s Stage I. As a matter of lovelorn fact, writer-director Shanley juggles not one, but two insults-at-the-ready pairs, which lends his sex comedy a two-for-one appeal.
Immediately, he introduces Barry Dragonetti (Jason Alexander), a Providence, RI, lawyer, and the va-va-voom widowed Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott). They grew up together. When they were kids, she got him out of a beating he was taking from a Portuguese kid, a fracas that left him convinced that all bullies are Portuguese.
Barry is representing the home that Atalanta wants to sell after her husband, and his good friend, kicked the bucket. It’s pretty much a straightforward situation — or would be if, as they bicker, she didn’t tell him that whenever she’s had sex over the years, she called out Barry’s name whenever she was at the height of passion.
Well, ain’t that a telling signal? A sweet liaison looms, despite the presence of Barry’s mother, Mrs. Dragonetti (Mary Testa), a Croat who acts as his office receptionist and who interrupts the couple solely to maintain a feud that she’s had with Atalanta for decades. This is despite Barry’s marriage to the young, voluptuous Patti Dragonetti (Aimee Carrero).
Once the sparring goes on for awhile and the Barry-Atalanta affair is established, John Lee Beatty’s law-office set turns to reveal Atalanta’s lavish bedroom. There, she’s found doing the deed with the rather younger Freddie Imbrossi (Pico Alexander), who — get this! — earlier on had a meaningful but fast-ended fling with Patti.
Beatty’s splendid set then turns to the Dragonetti terrace — where Barry, Patti and Mrs. Dragonetti tangle awhile. Then, Beatty’s set turns yet again, now to display Atalanta’s beautifully landscaped garden where Barry, Atalanta, Freddie and Patti gather for a turbulent lunch concerning the property’s sale. The meal becomes even more turbulent when Mrs. Dragonetti drops by.
No surprise, of course, and no need to give more information on where this is going, since that will be a long-foregone conclusion for any audience member not attending the theater for the first time. Indeed, it’s the getting to the happily-ever-afters that matters, and this is where Shanley, at bat, isn’t having a good inning. Yes, the play start with plenty of pizzazz. The exchanges between Barry, dressed in a double-breasted suit with breast pocket hanky, and Atalanta, sexy as a Victoria’s Secret commercial as she stalks him and he avoids her, offer much comic lift. The exchanges are lifted further with red-wigged Mrs. Dragonetti enters for more acerbic giggles. She even shouts funny taunts through the chamber door.
But when the action switches to Atalanta’s very frou-frou chamber, the proceedings are first amusing, then flatten. Shanley gives the impression that he’s running low on laugh gas. The gauge falls even lower when Barry and Patti argue in between expressions of deep love. She’s grateful that he saved her from Freddie’s clutches, but that cover up any of her accumulating resentments — or her residual feelings for Freddie.
In the final scene, of course, we sort out who ends up with whom. It’s a hectic sequence, all right, but increasingly Shanley can’t keep matters entertaining. He pulled off that trick appealingly in Outside Mullingar, but here solutions elude him. It should be noted that Shanley makes it a habit of directing his plays, and he does a better job of that assignment than he does with his script. At least he’s wise enough to choose expert farceurs for his cast, for they account for whatever buoyancy is found in the play.
Take Jason Alexander, who musters all the bluster and bafflement that Barry requires. It’s as if it’s actually crossed the actor’s mind that George Costanza got tired of the Yankees and shifted careers. Yet, Alexander reveals himself for what he’s always been: a stylish actor. Scott, who’s heated the stage before with her allure, gets yuks when they’re there in the script, but she also extracts a few when they’re not. Carrero brings out Patti’s genuine love for Barry and the primal attraction for Freddie from which she can’t cut loose. And tall, thin, buff Pico Alexander makes clear Patti’s troubles — and why Atalanta is dallying.
Then there’s Testa as the verbally volcanic Mrs. Dragonetti. Is this the third role she’s played on the NYC stage in the last year? I think so: The Government Inspector and Orange Julius preceded this one. She’s always so employable because she’s always so good. If there’s ever a scene she doesn’t steal, it’s because she’s too much of a conscientious trouper to make off with it. Her Mrs. Dragonetti — she, of the wary, sidelong glance — is another notch in her belt.
But The Portuguese Kid, with its underlying message that love may be problematic but will out, is never much more than just OK. Atalanta saved Barry from that fight years ago, but here, I’m afraid, the playwright lost the battle.