“My two cents” review

The Portuguese Kid received several ho-hum reviews suggesting that the topical references didn’t work or that the comedy was predictable or that the gender and race politics were problematic. I couldn’t disagree more strenuously and think the play does what comedies do best. The play inspires its audience to laugh at and critique the behaviors that, upon reflection, they may discover inhabit their own worlds as well. Yes, the play creates a comic world that seems to be far removed from the one in which the audience lives, thereby enabling the audience to laugh more freely, but that comic world has more than one concrete connection to the real world.  For me, the importance here is less about whether you think the vaping scene is integral to the plot or whether you think references to current-day presidents belong in theater. Remember the vaping scene I described in the previous post? For me, references to the audience’s lived-in-world work to remind us of the connection between the stage and real world.

This is a play in which the character played by Sherie Rene Scott, Atalanta Lagana, is furious with her newly-deceased husband because he has voted for Donald Trump. This means that we, the audience, get to hear Atalanta expound upon her hatred for Trump and her desire to throttle the men who voted for him, and when it is revealed that the Jason Alexander character, Barry Dragonetti, has voted for Trump, we get to see the throttle in action. Plus, we hear Atalanta, a woman, call the current president an “idiot” several times. To my mind, these references to Trump are more thought-provoking than the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar this past summer which got so much flak for casting a clear Trump look-alike in the role of Julius Caesar (and since, as you may recall from your high school education, Julius Caesar gets stabbed multiple times, at least two corporations felt they had to rescind their funding of Shakespeare in the Park).

This is a play that appears to be a light and fluffy romance on the outside (well, Atalanta isn’t named Atalanta for nothing and the Playbill includes a note reminding us of who she is in classical mythology and how Aphrodite, the goddess of love, intervenes in her destiny), but on the inside is getting at something deeper since it explores the desire experienced by the young AND the not so young. Indeed the two main characters, Barry Dragonetti and Atalanta Laguna, are both in their 50’s and they are involved with people who are in their 20’s. I won’t tell you who ends up with whom by the end of the play in case you get a chance to see it yourself, but the various combinations provide food for thought.

This is a play that possesses a title that is hard to remember and seems idiosyncratic UNTIL you watch it and then realize that its idiosyncrasy is carefully selected. The main character, Barry Dragonetti, has this intense hatred of anyone he thinks might be Portuguese because of an incident in his youth in which a Portuguese kid threatened him with a knife and instead of being able to stand up to him, he was “saved” by Atalanta, a woman. Throughout the play, characters give Barry a hard time because he insists that people that are not Portuguese ARE Portuguese thereby allowing him to foster unreasonable hatred. On the surface, this plot line seems at best silly and related to the world of the play only, or at worst vaguely racist. BUT, in a time when there are all kinds of unreasonable prejudices against, say, people with Muslim backgrounds, and there all kinds of times when people think that someone is, say, Muslim, when they are not, and react in ways that are dangerous or violent, this seems to be a very smart play asking us to think about race, ethnicity, and gender biases.

This is a play in which, and here’s a novelty, the women actors get to shine because of their considerable and intelligent acting skills, even though I will grant you that in many ways they are also playing the parts of clichéd female stereotypes whether that includes the overbearing mother, the sexy bimbo in the aging but still hot or the young and exceptionally nubile category (lots of heels and décolletage in the costuming), or the black widow character (Atalanta’s husbands have a habit of dying and she does say at the very end “I killed my husbands….Just joking”).  However, all three of the female characters get to say and do lots of smart things (both Patty and Atalanta are asking more from life than what they are getting from marriage and I, for one, say amen to women characters that don’t think marriage is the end-all and be-all of life) and they get to challenge a few stereotypes here and there as well as when Atalanta and Patty, though apparently in competition with one another DO NOT end up hating each other or pulling at each other’s hair in a proverbial cat fight.

This is a play that creates a world that seems safe because fictional and exaggerated. A space where we feel it’s ok to laugh at someone for being silly enough to hate someone because they are a particular nationality (especially when they are not that nationality).  A space where we feel it’s ok to imagine a character being so overwrought about an actual president that she can call him an “idiot” without inviting audience members to walk out or revoke a theater’s funding. So, in my mind, the current production of The Portuguese Kid is another example of the magic of theater (so since one of the themes of this blog IS the magic of theater, this isn’t such a digression after all). Its magic comes from making us laugh and learn something about ourselves as well. I remain convinced that comedies, and especially artfully wrought ones that seem to be about nothing but the glitter of artificial characters and situations, get a bad rap so as to discount the important work that they are doing with their audiences. But go see The Portuguese Kid and decide for yourself. You may not agree with me, but at the very least you will see five terrific actors, and if you’re lucky, Mr. Shanley himself will be in the audience as he was for the performance I attended.  I say lucky because when the director and/or playwright are present for performances, it demonstrates to this audience member, at least, that they have a significant stake in the world they have helped to create, and my world felt bigger for it.

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