One test of a good play is whether its characters come believably alive in the hands of a talented cast and solid direction. “Napoli, Brooklyn,” a new play by Meghan Kennedy presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, passes with honors. The family drama is steadily involving, and even though it can at times feel over-jammed with conflict and events, it carries the ring of truth.
The time is 1960, the place Brooklyn, and the main setting is the home of Ludavica (Luda) Muscolino (Alyssa Bresnahan) and her husband Nic (Michael Rispoli). They are immigrants from Italy who have made a life in America. Eugene Lee has created an impressionistic set to define their home, the neighborhood and their religion. A row of residential buildings is in the background, and hanging from above is a crucifix. Also hanging is a sign for Duffy’s butcher shop. The stage is divided into a kitchen, a dining room, a doorway and a bedroom.
The Muscolinos have three daughters. Sixteen-year-old Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale) is living at home but plotting romantically with her friend Connie Duffy (Juliet Brett), the butcher’s daughter, to flesh out their growing lesbian relationship, stow away on a ship and go to live in Paris. Feisty twenty-year-old Vita (Elise Kibler) has been sent to a convent with the unlikely possibility that she will follow that path in life. She harbors anger for her father who beat her up seriously in a family squabble when she came to the defense of Francesca. Tina, the oldest sister, is working in a factory to help support the family and she is becoming increasingly friendly with her sympathetic African-American co-worker Celia Jones (Shirine Babb).
As you can gather, there is little family calm. Nic has a short fuse, and can be abusive to Luda as well as to his daughters. Yet Luda still remembers the romantic times of their youth, and on occasion the old flame is rekindled. She takes pleasure in cooking, but lacking the steady romantic attention she should be getting at home, she is flattered by the flirtatious attention of Albert Duffy, the butcher (Erik Lochtefeld), when she does her shopping.
Director Gordon Edelstein handles all of the action smoothly, as the spotlight shifts from one situation to another, occupying different parts of the stage, and sometimes with characters talking solo directly toward the audience. Nothing seems overly contrived.
As if the aspects of family drama were not enough, the playwright ups the stakes near the end of the first act in a highly dramatic way. I will not give you a spoiler, but the effect is to place matters in a new context. Later, an ultimate Christmas family reunion dinner, which Albert, the butcher, and Tina’s co-worker Celia, are invited, erupts into family hell, and the play proceeds from there.
All cast members distinguish themselves, but I am especially impressed by Bresnahan as Luda. She gives a terrific, moving performance, hitting various notes as a wife, mother and a woman who deserves a better life than she has but, infused with firm values and decency, carries on to do her best. Her performance stands out most dramatically.
As family sagas go, playwright Kennedy has given us a very absorbing one filled with sharp dialogue, insights and characters tailor-made for good acting opportunities. At the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed June 29, 2017.