Grandmama mia!

Over the River and Through the Woods

By Joe DiPietro
Directed by Sue Glausen Smith
Gallery Players
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

To enjoy Over the River and Through the Woods, one must have an open mind -- meaning don't be too picky about ethnic stereotypes, retread jokes, and a hackneyed generation gap. As long as theatregoers can live with such contrived humor, they'd probably consider the play a warmhearted look at Old World grandparents and their modern, acculturated progeny. There is, in fact, a valentine to famiglia buried under all the silliness about old folks afraid of answering machines and a grandma who greets everyone with "You look hungry."

In the Gallery Players' production, the actors who played the grandparents did not particularly look Italian and had no Italian mannerisms, but they were endearing. And that affability was essential for overprotective grandparents who are beloved by their grandson even though they irritate him. In giving Over the River and Through the Woods its first New York airing since a healthy Off-Broadway run a few years back, Gallery maintained its usual high quality in production details -- a quality that's especially impressive for a company based in an old school building in Brooklyn. Todd M. Reemtsma's living-room set was amply furnished and full of real grandmotherly touches, like a doily, an afghan, family photos, and assorted figurines.

The grandparents in Over the River and Through the Woods are a bundle of geezer cliches: Atlantic City is an exotic vacation to them. They're fascinated by the local grocery stores but see no use for an air conditioner or VCR. Vegetarianism and eating Chinese food are bizarre practices. And don't even get them started on going to therapy....

All the Italian cliches are there, too -- "the three F's," as one character calls them: family, faith and food. Then the play takes a serious turn in the second act, resulting in a drama top-loaded with exaggerated humor, and a comedy with a melancholy denouement. To some, this dramedy is a satisfying compromise; to others, it may come off as incohesive. This is most apparent in the relationship between the two young characters. Nick's grandparents introduce him to Caitlin in the hopes that he'll fall in love and nix his plans to move cross-country. Nick and Caitlin do hit it off, but she abruptly and angrily rejects him for mocking his grandparents. They later reconcile and admit their mutual attraction, but he moves anyway.

One would surmise the playwright keeps them apart to show that the grandparents, no matter how good their intentions and choice of mate for Nick, have to let him live his own life (Nick comes to a complementary understanding about their meddling). Still, it's strange for the ingenue and leading man in a comedy not to get together.

Neither the humor nor the sentimentality of Over the River and Through the Woods is subtle, which presents a challenge to the cast: their characters speak and act more like caricatures than real people, and the actors have to switch from broad humor to earnestness. It would take virtuosic actors to pull off the laughs and poignancy with equal conviction. Gallery's cast was game, but none of them truly became their character, so the emotional extremes seemed somewhat hollow. Despite their banal dialogue, the grandparents were amusing, with the cutest portrayal by Dianne Barranca, the only non-Equity actor among the older generation.

(Also featuring Joe DiGennaro, Dolores Kenan, Charles Fatone, Hal Smith-Reynolds and Rachel Feldman. Costumes, Rebecca Schraffenberger; lighting, Michael Foster; sound, Peter Lopez.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Adrienne Onofri