Just as a large family at a crowded dinner table has multiple conversations going on simultaneously, Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn, at the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, contains several different kinds of play going on at once. And as at a crowded dinner table, they don’t always fit together comfortably. Some of the discomfort comes from Kennedy’s youthful eagerness as a writer, a virtue that carries its own defect: She seems to be trying to cram all the plays she wants to write into one story, which produces an exciting mixture of elements but also badly dissipates focus and fractures narrative confusingly. In part, too, the overcrowding comes from a historical sense that seems pasted on rather than clearly observed — impressions of what a Neapolitan immigrant family might have been like in this or that earlier era get mushed into a single time, where they don’t always sit reasonably together. Full of interest, the play is also full of head-scratching anomalies.
The time is December 1960, which is important because the pivotal event of Kennedy’s play is a historic one: On December 16 of that year — in foggy, rainy weather — a United Airlines jet bound for what was then Idlewild Airport collided in midair with a TWA jet descending to land at LaGuardia. One plane crashed on Staten Island, the other in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, setting fire to a street of brownstone apartment buildings and shops. Everyone onboard both aircraft (a total of 128 people) was killed, along with six people on the ground, including a church’s ninety-year-old caretaker, two men selling Christmas trees on the street, and a man out walking his dog. The death toll was, at that time, the highest in the history of commercial aviation.
Kennedy imagines this horrific event as having a life-changing effect on an already unhappy Park Slope family. Nic Muscolino (Michael Rispoli) and his wife, Ludovica (Alyssa Bresnahan), are Neapolitan immigrants whose three American-born daughters suffer in various ways from Nic’s abusive old-world habits. Tina (Lilli Kay), pulled out of school early to boost the family income by working in a local factory, has become a stolid, sullen enabler; outspoken Vita (Elise Kibler), who once dreamed of becoming a nun, has taken refuge under a convent’s protection after falling victim to one of Nic’s violent rages. High-school-age Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale) cultivates fantasies of escape with her best friend, the local butcher’s daughter, Connie Duffy (Juliet Brett), and shows distinct hints of wanting to carry the relationship well beyond gal-pal status. Alternately condoning Nic’s tyranny and encouraging her daughters’ resistance to it, Ludovica, a genius cook, has a relationship with her husband that verges — in the bedroom, literally — on s&m.
While much of this aspect of the play is effectively written, and all of it convincingly acted, most of it — except for the edging across sexual boundaries — seems familiar from decades of earlier dysfunctional-family dramas in which the clan’s repressed crises all boil up at a holiday dinner. It also looks slightly out of place in the time period Kennedy has chosen. Nic came to the U.S. as a stowaway, but you hear nothing about his immigrant status or Ludovica’s (they both still struggle with English); the family’s financial straits seem to evoke the Depression rather than the comparative affluence of 1960. They also seem weirdly insulated from both the surrounding community and the culture at large. The Irish butcher, Duffy (Erik Lochtefeld), and Tina’s African-American co-worker, Celia (Shirine Babb), are the only non-Muscolinos we see or hear about. The high school girls sing the 1956 hit “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” but nobody mentions movies or television (by 1960, every urban American family at least had neighbors with a TV set). And even more oddly, nobody in this play about Catholics finds occasion to mention that, in November 1960, America elected its first Catholic president. Though perhaps not instantly germane to the play’s themes of overcoming family tensions and searching for self-realization, these were pervasively influential aspects of daily life at the time; stripped bare of them, the characters tend to look isolated, like lab specimens set out to dry.
Even the airline disaster, which in the script traumatically affects the lives of Celia and the Duffys, doesn’t quite fit in. The six Brooklynites killed by the crash didn’t include anyone exactly like those the characters grieve for (though the actual victims did include a butcher whose first name, like Duffy’s, was Albert), while the realizations into which the event shocks the family were brewing anyway, and would have come to a head at a family gathering without dragging in a historical event to help make the point (and to provide a really spiffy, ultra-loud light-and-sound effect).
Gordon Edelstein’s production works, with only occasional hints of struggle, to harness the play’s constant shifts of topic, scene, and narrative. He gets generally fine performances, though Rispoli often seems to be cramping his style in the effort to keep the father from becoming a cardboard monster. Bresnahan, grounding her work beautifully in the mother’s doughty obstinacy and endurance, gives far and away the best performance, making you realize that this play about a father and his daughters is, in fact, all about Mom. This tilt of focus shows you both the good and bad in the current state of Kennedy’s playwriting: Her uncertainty with structural decisions stems partly from her gift for highlighting a situation’s unexpected facets.
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
Through September 3