What can I say about a terrible play that made me laugh? That it’s a waste of talent and hardly worthy of Jason Alexander’s return to the stage for the first time since he replaced Larry David in Fish in the Dark? That it deserves a pass because it’s by John Patrick Shanley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Doubt and an Oscar (plus the devotion of Cher fans everywhere) for Moonstruck? Did I mention it made me laugh, and that I wouldn’t necessarily admit it except there were witnesses?
In The Portuguese Kid, which opened tonight in a sleek production staged by the playwright at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Alexander plays Barry Dragonetti, a Providence lawyer suave as tub mold and sexy as a day-old sesame bagel. He’s visited in the opening scene at his office by Atalanta Lagana, a twice-widowed old friend sheathed in black and bling and played by the irresistible Sherie Rene Scott (whose only career mistake was playing Ursula in the Broadway version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid). It’s her 50th birthday.
Barry handled most of the affairs for Atalanta and her latest dead husband, who was a childhood friend of the lawyer. In the course of asking him to handle the sale of her mansion, Atalanta confesses that when she and her late spouse made love, she sometimes blurted “Barry!” in the heat of passion. Ditto with husband Number One.
Barry finds this a little hard to believe.
Atalanta: Let me be clear, Barry. I’ve been shouting your name for twenty five years.
Barry: Jesus Christ! What are you saying? That’s incomprehensible!
Atalanta: I know. It’s a nightmare.
Barry: Even the women I’ve been with don’t call my name.
Imagine George Costanza saying those lines, and you would be right on the money. A little later, the subject of Dead Husband Number Two’s profession comes up.
Barry: Your husband was a solid man. He was a surgeon for Chrissakes.
Atalanta: A foot surgeon.
Atalanta: What kind of man looks over the whole of a human and chooses the feet?
Barry and Atalanta are a match made in sitcom heaven, where people are characters and dialogue consists of set-ups and punchlines. They’re vulgar but given to flights of fancy, pot-holed with strategically placed malapropisms. As in Moonstruck, doggerel is played simultaneously for romance and laughs, as when Atalanta’s current boy-toy Freddie, a young lawyer played by Pico Alexander (Indignation), describes her tuchus: “Your ass is like a wedding tent, billowing by the night time sea.” Atalanta is charmed by this, even though she knows better.
Freddie is the ex-boyfriend of Barry’s wife Patty (Aimee Carrero of Young & Hungry and Blindspot), who is Latina and thus destined to be described as “a spitfire.” Rounding out the population of The Portuguese Kid is Barry’s mother (Mary Testa), a foul-mouthed matron with a particular distaste for Atalanta, frequently expressed in immodest terms. (Not to worry, she returns fire with such terms of endearment as “You swamp ape!”)
The Portuguese Kid (honestly, the title is not worth explaining) offers up a soupçon of topicality with Atalanta’s aversion to the current president, any support of whom sends her into anaphylactic paroxysms. It’s funny once. It happens more than that.
The MTC A-team has delivered a great-looking show, with sets by John Lee Beatty, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski and character-perfect clothes, especially, as always, for the women, by William Ivey Long. Don’t look for deep meaning below the surface. The play is piffle, but you will laugh in spite of yourself.