Scattered rose petals, moonbeams, and occasional big laughs garnish The Portuguese Kid, but such trimmings scarcely sweeten the tart, sometimes sour, essence of John Patrick Shanley’s latest work. A comedy regarding inexplicable sexual desire, the play is an underdone mélange of farce, Greek mythological references, insult humor, and extrasensory connections. The dramaturgy here is surprisingly desultory: Shanley happens to be, after all, the award-winning author of such well-crafted pieces as Doubt, Outside Mullingar, and the screenplay for Moonstruck, among several dozen other works. But operating here also as a director, Shanley manages to massage this on-paper mishmash with capable actors and the smartest production values Manhattan Theatre Club can buy, and the result is one hundred minutes of agreeable, albeit fitful, amusement.
Set in the present in Providence, Rhode Island, the story explores the uneasy relationship between Barry (Jason Alexander) and Atalanta (Sherie Rene Scott), frenemies since early adolescence who are now in their fifties. Recently and wealthily widowed, Atalanta turns to Barry, her late husband’s lawyer, to sell her mansion. They obviously don’t get along well: She is dismissive; he is irritable. So it comes as something of a shock when Atalanta reluctantly reveals to Barry that, in her sexual climaxes, she inadvertently screams his name. “That’s incomprehensible,” he sputters. “I know,” she responds. “It’s a nightmare.”
This unexpected news briefly fazes Barry, who then remarks, “Even the women I’ve been with don’t call my name.” Yet the hefty sales commission soon entices Barry to gingerly do business with Atalanta, who lately is bedding Freddie (Pico Alexander), a preening dandy some twenty years her junior. Not at all incidentally, Freddie turns out to be the former lover of Barry’s considerably younger wife, Patty (Aimee Carrero), a moody beauty who remains bitter over their break-up. In the play’s final scene, this mismated foursome gather upon Atalanta’s leafy patio for an increasingly drunken, quarrelsome lunch. A fifth participant in this martini-fueled imbroglio is Fausta (Mary Testa), Barry’s stink-eyed old mama, who believes that Atalanta someday will be the death of her son and, anyway, that love is for suckers.
So, what’s with that title? During their tween years, it seems Atalanta rescued Barry from being mugged by a Portuguese man wielding a can opener. Ever since, anybody whom Barry distrusts — like the Italian-American Freddie — he thinks of as Portuguese. It’s simply another odd, shaggy-dog tangent in Shanley’s jumble of quirky elements — one he doesn’t quite mold into a satisfying study in the mystical nature of desire. (As Atalanta muses in her moonlit boudoir, “I feel like the whole human race is burnin’ up with invisible messages that we just like ignore.”)
It’s impossible to ignore the breathy allure of Scott in her febrile characterization of Atalanta, a femme fatale who buried her last husband with his vote-for-Trump sign inside the casket. If Alexander’s performance appears to be an amped-up version of the actor’s former Seinfeld persona, it suits the schlubby Barry. Clad in designer William Ivey Long’s humorously hideous clothes, Testa intones Fausta’s baneful remarks with a caterwauling edge in her voice. They, along with Alexander and Carrero, easily spin through their paces even as designer John Lee Beatty’s turntable smoothly delivers four differently cartoonish settings for their various confrontations.