A Choice Play 

A grandson's tough decision gives birth to this simple yet affecting play.

Unmarried, almost-thirty Nick Cristano has a problem. He's done so well at his Manhattan job that he's been offered a big promotion -- if he'll move to Seattle. And both sets of his beloved grandparents (who live in Hoboken) will stop at nothing -- including matchmaking -- to keep him from leaving. From such a basic premise Over the River, Through the Woods is born. This sweet and affecting play raises the awkward questions so many people face when reconciling choices with family obligations. Center REP was so concerned about getting Over the River right (it's a script that could be easily overplayed) that they called director William Roesch back from his new Idaho home to take the helm. In a pre-show presentation last week, Roesch joked about the fact that mature actors have four of the six roles, saying Center REP thought an older director would work better with older actors. But his jest is based in truth; the play needs to unfold at a certain pace, certain nuances need to develop, and the choice to have a wiser, steadier hand on the tiller was apt.

There are many pleasures in this simple, straightforward narrative, which flits from viewpoint to viewpoint -- Nick speaks directly to the audience, his grandparents talk about how they met and fell in love, the family has discussions over dinner as Nick struggles with his choice. For one, Over the River manages to be both funny and truthful. We are familiar with the characters; they are similar to our own family members and prone to the same schemes.

Playwright Joe DiPietro shows his respect for his audience in the design of the play itself. The protagonist isn't perfect -- in fact, he's kind of a jerk. While the family is Italian, DiPietro has avoided the kind of broad stereotyping that sets one's teeth on edge. The resolution is untidy but realistic -- we may want things to go a certain way, but they don't. Hard decisions are made, questions go unanswered, and the characters don't always get what they want. But the best part of this play is the view of two marriages that have endured -- it's a paean to the ideal of marriage, where a couple grows together into "something deeper than you could have imagined." And the actors chosen to play the four grandparents are uniformly superb in their roles.

Phoebe Moyer, who was so wonderful as the glamorous, deceased Violet in Theatre FIRST's recent production of The Memory of Water, is back as Emma Cristano, Nick's footloose paternal grandmother. She introduces herself by quoting her mother: "Don't be one of those women that gets lost behind the family. Ha!" There's not much chance of Emma getting lost anywhere; she says exactly what's in her head ("So, Nicky, say something attractive to Caitlin," she prods her mortified grandson after introducing him to her canasta partner's niece), goes where she wants, and is apparently still (again to Nick's embarrassment) sexually intimate with her husband. The chemistry between she and Rudolf Vest as Nunzio is perfect. He grumblingly tolerates her adventurous spirit, which manifests in a seemingly endless string of vacations. "It's so exhausting!" Nunzio says of travel. "You get off the bus, you take a picture, you get back on the bus." He delights in telling the story of how they met (or a more entertaining version), and still loves to dance with her. Nunzio gets plenty of one-liners, such as "See, we aren't loud, we're passionate!" and pulls off a jaw-dropping triumph in the second act when he remembers the name of the ambassador to Spain through an exceptionally convoluted series of associations that will ring true for anyone starting to have the memory challenges that accompany age. Vest is, in his character's own word, adorable as Nunzio. He's the sweet grandpa we all wish we had. His painful secret is all the sadder for it, and Vest plays it with restraint. Seeing the two together, we agree with Emma when she tells Nick, "This is the reason I want to see you married," and even those of us with theoretical problems with the institution of marriage might be swayed.

Maternal grandma Aida is sweetly childlike, tall, and impossibly skinny for the all the delicious food she makes. It can't be easy playing a character who says, "Who's hungry?" repeatedly, but Mary Benson pulls it off, all long arms and beatific smiles. She's the one who will have the most striking reaction to Nick's choice in the second act; it's a dramatic shift because up until that point she has seemed the most Zen-like of the four. Her fondness and gratitude for husband Frank is clear -- "He was the first man -- no, the first person -- to notice me," she says of their meeting. Frank Gianelli (Michael Moerman) is stiffly proud of what he's accomplished since his impoverished family put him on a boat headed for the States, and while he claims not to be much of a talker, in Moerman's hands the character does a beautiful monologue about what fathers have to give their children.

It seems strange to say this, but by contrast, Ted D'Agostino and Linda Jones as Nick and blind date Caitlin almost suffer from not being old enough to be interesting. Caitlin seems to have been written solely to make Nick doubt the wisdom of leaving, and for giving him some grief. Jones is most believable when she's telling Nick off for not appreciating his grandparents. Meanwhile Nick, who is telling this story, does come off as a bit of a bounder. We identify with him because he's trying to determine the path of his own life, but why should he leave behind these charming (if noisy) people? Can a job be that important? Nick further implicates himself when he blows it with Caitlin, and then blames his grandparents -- come on, kiddo, take responsibility for your own behavior. D'Agostino plays Nick as clueless, searching, and volatile, which works, even if we want to strangle him for giving his grandparents so much trouble.

The set, lighting, and costume design share a high level of verisimilitude. The play is set in the mid-'80s, and the women's big shoulder pads and a vintage Member's Only jacket are perfect. Prop master Bea Shelby had an unusual challenge in that much of the action of the play centers around food. The assistant stage manager makes dinner for six every performance. Imagine if your job required that. According to Roesch, the real thing would be too expensive, so during one scene, the actors eat fake meat. "Don't tell them," he jokes. "They think they're still getting veal."

Center REP and Dean Lesher Center General Manager Scott Denison took time from his other responsibilities to design the sensitive lighting that clarifies the transitions between past and present, while Eric Sinkkonen's set captures the feel of a well-loved and lived-in home.

My one complaint with this play is that the ending is rushed. After Nick makes his decision, the rest of the play takes on a jarring "then I woke up, and it was all just a dream" quality. Nick narrates the ensuing changes, deaths, and so on as if he wants to get it over with. The fault here seems to lie not with the actor but the script; as an audience we have come so fully to identify with the grandparents that remembering that the story is essentially Nick's is a shock. The news that he is starting a family of his own seems thin, his repetition of his grandparents' slogan "Tengo familia!" a faint echo. I guess like life, this ending is truthful, if not entirely satisfying.


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