With immigration a hot political issue, stories about the ways of life of immigrants become more than sentimental evocations of how newly arrived people managed here in the past. Such family histories, as featured in Meghan Kennedy’s new play Napoli, Brooklyn, at the Long Wharf Theatre through March 12, should make us aware of how diverse are the cultural backgrounds covered by the term “American.” That diversity undermines any right of one ethnicity to lay claim to that term more than another. Almost everyone has ancestors who suffered to get here and to stay here, and the American Dream has seemed to promise that this country would find room for all.
Kennedy’s play doesn’t dwell on immigration itself, but Nic (Jason Kolotouros), the patriarch of the Muscolino family, tells a story of how he stowed away aboard ship to get to the United States. He and his long-suffering wife Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) live in Brooklyn and are apt to muse about how their lives might have been different back in Italy. Nic is convinced he would’ve sired sons there, instead of the three daughters he’s been saddled with. The three are now young women, and have long since grown rebellious against their father’s meanness, violence, and authoritarianism.
It’s 1960, and we learn that Vita (Carolyn Braver), the middle girl, has been sent away to a convent as punishment for her attack on her father, which came about in the act of defending the youngest, Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), from his violent anger. The only daughter Nic now feels he can trust is the eldest, Tina (Christina Pumariega), who dropped out of school to work for a packing company.
The first half of the play works hard — perhaps too hard — to give each of the characters a storyline. The technique might work better in a novel or even a telenovela, but here it leads to a lot of little scenes with characters that seem to exist simply to add some dimension to each of the Muscolinos. Thus Vita writes back to Francesca to express her feelings about the nuns and Albert Camus. Francesca, whose act of cutting off her hair spurred her father’s ire, plans to run off to Paris in a romantic folie á deux with her girlfriend Connie Duffy (Ryann Shane). Meanwhile, Connie’s erstwhile father Albert (Graham Winton), a butcher, pines respectfully for Luda in a nicely understated performance. And Tina, the only daughter who sounds like she was born in Brooklyn, befriends an African-American woman at the plant, Mrs. Celia Jones (a very underused Shirine Babb). And through it all Nic sulks and seethes and acts generally pissed off.
At first, I thought the play might be highlighting Vita’s story, since her removal from the family home might lead to new experiences and insights, but, in fact, as Act 2 makes clear, this is really Luda’s story, making Alyssa Bresnahan the linchpin of the production. It requires some suspension of disbelief, certainly, to accept that this woman is married to this man and living in the early ‘60s, but that’s simply a way of saying that Luda is a heroine for our times. She’s the kind of maternal figure who has the wisdom to let her children’s different personalities teach her something about human nature. She’s the heart of the show. Her final speech to Connie ends the play with emotional resonance and a strong feeling for what needs to be said.
The big moment of Act 1 I won’t reveal, but hang onto your seat — it’s an impressive effect. The big set-piece of Act 2 is Christmas dinner with Vita back home and Mrs. Jones and Mr. Duffy, who each have experienced a recent tragedy, present as guests. Director Gordon Edelstein has a knack for multiple character scenes and he keeps the tensions circulating — Mr. Muscolino has supposedly turned over a new leaf, full of good cheer, but everyone’s just waiting for the new façade to crack.
The scene’s racial dynamic, while feeling a bit forced for dramatic purposes, does point out an important aspect of what is often called the American experiment: here, ethnicities that might never cross paths elsewhere find themselves sitting together at Christmas dinner. One might say that Christianity — not easy to overlook with that big crucifix hanging above the stage — makes for strange dining companions, and Kennedy’s play keeps God in the details. Most of the characters feel perfectly natural praying together and Luda, who is a mighty good cook if she does say so herself, confides in onions whenever she’s nonplussed with the supreme being.
Eugene Lee’s set is an inventive use of the Long Wharf space, giving us just enough furnishings to provide a sense of the Muscolino flat. A door on wheels becomes front door or bedroom door as needed. A table, a couch, a range, and a double bed act as the haven the three girls share together and as the scene of highly wrought lovemaking between Mr. and Mrs. Muscolino that, early in the play, seems to indicate a darker and more surprising play. The romance between Francesca and Connie is good ingénue material and the young actresses put a lot of charm into it, particularly DiNatale’s tripping the light fantastic. She also has a strong scene pleading with her father to recognize that she could be the son he never had.
Kolotouros’s Nic, while never likable, has moments of dramatic intensity that give the play a focus; without him, everybody would probably get along with everybody else. Like a venerable immigrant drama such as I Remember Mama, Napoli, Brooklyn gives us a woman who is the backbone and beating heart of her family, though the “I reject Papa” elements are new. Nic slinks back to the old country, having decided that the American experiment is not for him. Fine. At least he leaves of his own accord.