Dinner with the Boys
Written by and co-starring Dan Lauria, who is well-recognized for playing the father on The Wonder Years, Dinner with the Boys serves up a zany, darkly comic brew that blends two stereotypical Italian ingredients – quality home-cooking and mobster on mobster violence. It’s a peculiar piece that, on the night of this review, had the audience chuckling, laughing, wincing, and – just as often – looking at each other wondering what they were supposed to make of this insanity.
Performed energetically by three talented stage/screen veterans, Dinner with the Boys takes place in a kitsch-decorated suburban home that could easily belong to your winsome grandparents. Living there are two amiable former mobsters who seem entirely unthreatening (at least, in demeanor): culinary expert Dom (Richard Zavaglia) and his half-Irish pal Charlie (Dan Lauria). We eventually learn that, after over thirty years of working for a mafia family, Dom and Charlie have escaped their former criminal vocations and now live in an unassuming neighborhood that they hope is hard to find.
While Dom cooks dinner using vegetables grown in a garden tended by Charlie, the two retirees cheerily engage in nostalgic storytelling that, in a normal situation, would probably include subjects like high school football glory moments, college fraternity pranks, sweethearts, and quirky teachers. Instead, they reminisce in extremely graphic detail about gruesome killings that they participated in or witnessed - such as burning a pimp alive in a pizza oven while forcing his friend to watch.
Taking things to another ridiculously gruesome level is the fact that Dom isn’t just cooking with broccoli rabe, garlic, and a little lemon. The main ingredient happens to be Leo, a former mobster cohort, whose calcium-rich bones have also provided excellent fertilizer for Charlie’s garden.
That seems to be the intended hook of the play: a juxtaposition between a benign environment inhabited by chummy personalities and descriptions and actions of extreme (albeit cartoonish) violence.
But does that hook work? Partially. But, some audience members may find the conceit growing old as it becomes easy to predict the evening’s rhythm of pleasantries combined with gross-out moments. Overall, the wacky mix of elements in this show, comic cannibalism and all, may just be too bizarre; there’s not enough recognizable reality to anchor the humor. A thread of homoerotic double entendres that run through the play do point in an interesting direction –areDom and Charlie more than just pals? –but the play shies away from fully committing to this idea which is ironic given the boldness of everything else.
However, there is still a fair amount of laughs, largely thanks to an unhinged, often mesmerizing dual-role performance by Ray Abruzzo who plays mafia muscle Big Anthony Junior in the first act and Sid (the brains of the organization) in the second. His physical comedy in the climactic scenes is a marvel of commitment, as funny for us as it must be exhausting for him.
If you love classic Italian tropes, appreciate a sick sense of humor, and can take cannibalism with a grain of salt (and parsley and garlic), you might find Dinner with the Boys to be a fitfully hilarious, consistently demented, night of unique theater.
Dinner with the Boys plays at the Acorn Theatre 410 West 42nd Street, at least through June 28th.