by Carol Rocamora
An onion isn’t a stage prop you’re used to seeing in the theater, is it?
(And a large white one, yet.)
But as carried by Luda, immigrant wife and mother, throughout Napoli, Brooklyn, an intense new play by Meghan Kennedy at the Laura Pels Theatre, that pungent prop will soon have your eyes watering.
Luda Muscolino, as played by Alyssa Bresnahan, is the much-maligned wife of Nic (Michael Rispoli), an embittered Italian immigrant struggling to make a life and a living in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 1960s. Nic is a pavement layer who hates his job and is threatened by his new, alien surroundings. To deepen his burning disappointment, his wife has bore him three daughters. (“In Italy we would have had boys,” he insists.)
The women in Nic’s household cope with his tyranny and physical abuse in a variety of ways. Vita, the eldest daughter (Elise Kibler), has fled to a nunnery, after having been attacked by her father. Tina (Lilli Kay), the second – and illiterate – daughter, left school to help support the family and works on an assembly line. Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), the youngest, dreams of running away to France with her girlfriend, Connie (Juliette Brett), the Irish butcher’s daughter.
So that leaves Luda, the mother, to bear the brunt of her husband’s violence—both in the bedroom, where he subjects her to brutal sex, and at the dinner table, where the explosive family drama plays out. Luda has only two sources of pleasure—her cooking (hence, the onion), and trips to the Irish butcher’s shop, where Albert (Eric Lochtefeld), the proprietor, can’t hide his affection for her.
But a catastrophic event occurs that changes Nic’s outlook and, ultimately, everyone’s destiny (it’s a huge coup de théâtre, and I won’t spoil it for you by revealing it).
There’s a lot going on in this action-packed melodrama. Kennedy, an ambitious playwright, is tackling a number of themes. There’s the issue of family—and how to deal with a violent patriarch. There’s the issue of marital abuse—and how a wife can survive without becoming an enabler.
Above all, it’s a play about immigration and its impact on the family unit and its individual members. Napoli, Brooklyn calls to mind a number of immigrant plays seen on New York stages in the past two seasons – including Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone as well as Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, the first two installments of her nine-part saga on the Nigerian immigrant experience. The common theme running through these plays is the struggle to keep the family together and tradition alive, as individual members strive to find a future and adapt to a new and strange culture.
The cast does valiantly in this action-packed melodrama that tackles so much—family, marital abuse, immigration, feminism, same-sex love, and unanticipated catastrophe (again, no spoiler). Central to it all is Luda, played with passion and conviction by Alyssa Bresnahan—a woman who becomes the feminist mouthpiece of a beleaguered generation. “Women are the strongest ones,” she tells the butcher’s daughter toward the end. “You need to learn it young.”
That onion will ultimately do the job.
Napoli, Brooklyn. Through September 3 at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus