What is the worst offense a character in John Patrick Shanley’s play “The Portuguese Kid” can commit? The answer: Having voted for Donald Trump. In a politically funny running gag voting for Trump is an unforgivable character flaw, the most terrible thing one can say about a person.
Shanley’s comedy, presented by The Manhattan Theatre Club, offers a certain amount of laugh opportunity, not from great writing, but as a vehicle for a good cast who can mine the most out of lines and situations even when the plot becomes rather limp. Shanley does his own direction, and on that score he mostly keeps the play moving at a loud, energy-infused pace that covers up the feebleness of some of the forced situations and gags.
But the five cast members are very enjoyable to watch and merit a salute—Jason Alexander, Sheri Rene Scott, Mary Testa, Pico Alexander and Aimee Carrero.
In the first scene we meet Jason Alexander as Barry Dragonetti, a lawyer being visited by Scott as Atalanta Lagana, a widow, a friend of Barry since childhood and in need of legal sorting out of property only in her dead husband’s name. Scott is terrific as a bundle of complexes and insecurities. Atalanta reveals that for many years during sex she has been calling out Barry’s name. No surprise--this annoyed her husband. That’s a nutty situation Shanley has concocted, but as delivered it is quite funny.
Always intruding is Barry’s monster of a mother, Mrs. Dragonetti, played abrasively by Mary Testa, and if you know Testa’s work, you know that she can be an excellent character actor, and here she is consistently funny in dispensing hate toward Atalanta accompanied by looks that could kill. For good measure she is shown all alone on stage at one point hilariously going through Greek dance steps.
Barry is married to the much younger Patty, played saucily by Carrero. The plot eventually tears into their marriage. Meanwhile, Atalanta is getting it on with a much younger Freddie Imbrossi, played with jaunty abandon by amusing Pico Alexander (no relation to Jason). However, their long bedroom scene, while character defining, drags out with not very funny dialogue. In a later scene we learn that Freddie and Patty had something going between them.
What about the Portuguese kid in the title? It turns out that he was a youngster who menaced Barry as a kid, and Atalanta came to the rescue, which denied Barry his moment to shine on his own, an issue that persists in his memory. Now he tends to view everyone to whom he is hostile as Portuguese no matter their ethnic identity.
The plot speeds into one big muddle of intended comedy and sorting out of the intertwined lives. Shanley’s writing is only intermittently funny along the way, but his cast members consistently come to the rescue as they make the most of everything they are given and are an entertaining lot. Jason Alexander amusingly fumes his way through the crises, and Scott is funnier than I have seen her in other venues.
But overall this is only a somewhat diverting time in the theater. Shanley owes a big vote of thanks to his cast. At New York City Center—Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed October 26, 2017.