Fatherly Lessons Of Palminteri's 'Bronx'

Theater Review

April 16, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The last word in the stage version of A Bronx Tale is "Dad."

Chazz Palminteri has said that the one-actor show, running at the Hippodrome Theatre, is an homage to his late father, Lorenzo. But the character who comes most vividly to life is the charismatic gangster known in the play as Sonny LoSpecchio. At least that's how it initially seems.

Sonny probably has five scenes for every one given to Palminteri's upstanding, bus-driver father. It's Sonny's trademark three-finger gestures the audience learns by heart; Sonny whom the teenage Cologio idolizes and emulates; Sonny who, despite his crimes, nearly takes on the stature of a tragic hero.

The relationship between Cologio and the capo began in 1960. The then-9-year-old witnessed a murder while sitting on his front steps but refused to rat out the gunman to police. Lorenzo Palminteri did not accept the ensuing friendship between the mob boss and the boy with equanimity. The older Cologio got, the more the two men competed for his allegiance.

Palminteri's semi-autobiographical tale was an immediate hit when it was performed off-Broadway in 1988. It was followed by a 1993 film starring Robert De Niro, and an acclaimed 2007 revival on the Great White Way.

Though Palminteri wrote the play's script and the film's screenplay, the two provide very different viewing experiences.

James Noone's set consists of the three points that defined the teen's world: the old-fashioned street lamp at East 187th Street and Belmont Avenue where he hung out with his friends; the steps fronting the five-story brownstone in which the Palminteri family lived; and Chez Joey's, the bar that served as the gangsters' headquarters.

Mostly, the set seems designed not to get in Palminteri's way.

The actor embodies all 18 roles, especially the neighborhood assortment of wise guys. Palminteri leans back, bends at the knees and spreads out his arms to denote the 400-pound bulk of JoJo the Whale, whose shadow once supposedly killed a dog.

On stage, Palminteri is constantly in motion for 90 minutes without a break. Twirling his arms and rotating his hips, he practically dances his way between the wings. His physical endurance is impressive. The only visible indications of the immense effort required to pull off this role are the sweat stains appearing under his armpits.

But the acting has a broadness that occasionally undermines the subtlety of the writing. It's most noticeable when Palminteri lampoons his teenage self by bugging out his eyes and slackening his jaw. It's almost as if he bought into the macho creed of toughness so thoroughly that, at age 56, he still can't allow an audience to see his vulnerability.

The acting is at its most convincing when Palminteri embodies Sonny, perhaps because the performer's love for his surrogate father shines through.

In the final moments, Palminteri says: "I learned something from these two men. I learned the saddest thing in life is wasted talent."

The words are Lorenzo's, and they suddenly seem to apply not just to young Cologio, but to Sonny himself.

Sometimes, father really does know best.

if you go

A Bronx Tale runs at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center through April 26. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 410-547-7328 or go to france-merrickpac.com.

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