The longstanding relationship between playwright-director John Patrick Shanley and Manhattan Theatre Club is not unlike a long marriage. There have been highs (Doubt, of course, which truly is a masterpiece), there have been lows (Romantic Poetry, which still makes me shudder to think about), and there have been a lot of in-betweens (including such recent works as the slight romance Outside Mullingar and the adolescent coming-of-age drama Prodigal Son).
There was a brief separation period after Romantic Poetry (during which time his play Storefront Church, the third piece of a “Church and State” trilogy that began with Doubt, was produced by the Atlantic Theater Company), but Shanley eventually returned to the MTC fold. In fact, The Portuguese Kid marks Shanley’s 12th show with MTC, and there is little doubt that the company’s subscribers will see his latest work next season or the season after that.
Of course, Shanley is not the only playwright with this kind of relationship with MTC (Donald Margulies, Richard Greenberg), and it’s good for playwrights to have a theater company serving as a collaborative, supportive partner (Richard Nelson and the Public Theater, Neil LaBute and MCC). But sometimes you get the impression that a play is only getting produced because of who wrote it, regardless of its merits, whether it’s out of loyalty to the playwright or because the company believes that the playwright’s name will sell tickets or appease subscribers.
In any case, I have no doubt that MTC (or, for that matter, any other major, self-respecting, not-for-profit theater company in New York) would not have produced The Portuguese Kid (a trifling, schlocky, early Neil Simon-style romantic comedy suited for dinner theater in Florida instead of Off-Broadway) were it not for the fact that Shanley wrote it – and directed it too.
Shanley was also able to enlist three well-known comic actors for the production, including Jason Alexander (who has rarely appeared on the New York stage in the 20 years since the end of Seinfeld), Sherie Rene Scott (who showcased her strong comic instincts in Whorl Inside a Loop and Everyday Rapture) and Mary Testa (who is here used to once again play a gorgon-like mother figure).
In The Portuguese Kid, the hot-blooded, unpredictable, two-time Greek widower Atalanta Lagana (Scott) seeks the aid of anxious attorney and old friend Barry Dragonetti (Alexander) in selling her late husband’s estate, while Barry’s imposing Croatian mother (Testa) views Atalanta with suspicion and delivers ominous warnings.
It turns out that Atalanta’s much younger, Italian lover Freddie (Pico Alexander) and Barry’s much younger, Puerto Rican, New Jersey-bred wife (Aimee Carrero) were a couple not so long ago. Although Atalanta and Barry have never been a couple, Atalanta has a curious habit of screaming out Barry’s name during sex.
The play relies heavily on one-liners (many of which are labored and lame), repeated bits (Barry’s memory of getting beat up as a youth by a “Portuguese kid,” Atalanta questioning the men around her whether they voted for Trump) and ethnic stereotyping. (Shanley employed ethnic characters to far better effect in his Oscar-winning screenplay of Moonstruck.)
A few days after attending the play, I made a point of reading through the script, and found that although it is slight and old-fashioned, it could come off as charming and/or cute under a different director who does not encourage such oversized performances and desperate stooping for laughter. The partner-swapping pattern and happy, hopeful ending that predictably follow recall the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music (which was based on the Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night). In other words, the play may be salvageable, but shouldn’t we expect better from both MTC and Shanley?