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Bad Boy Appeal

October 8, 2008

Chazz Palminteri inhabits 18 characters in his solo show -- unfortunately one of them steals the show.

Chazz Palminteri's autobiographical solo show, A Bronx Tale, is theoretically about an Italian-American boy's relationship with two father figures — hard-working, morally upstanding bus driver Lorenzo and neighborhood wiseguy Sonny. As the blurb for Robert De Niro's 1993 film adaptation melodramatically puts it: "One man lives in the neighborhood. Another man owns it. A devoted father battles the local crime boss for the life of his son." This is false advertising. It doesn't matter that Lorenzo, 9-year-old Cologio's actual dad, is a genuinely lovable fellow who stands up to bullies and attempts to imbue a firm sense of right and wrong in his young offspring. As likable as he is, Lorenzo fades to gray next to the colorful, complex, and ultimately more engrossing figure of Sonny. Like Cologio, we can't help feeling drawn to the badass mentor.

Villains have long exerted a stronger pull on impressionable sons than have heroes in our culture. Just as Falstaff dominates Prince Hal's attention in Shakespeare's Henry IV instead of Hal's true father, the feeble king, in Martin Scorsese's movie Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis' malignant Bill "The Butcher" Cutting easily usurps Liam Neeson's short-lived "Priest" Vallon in the eyes of his son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio). The imbalance of Palminteri's portrayal of the two father figures in A Bronx Tale is in keeping with this tradition. But while Sonny's looming presence raises salient questions about the influence of patriarchal values on society, it works against the solo play format.

Sonny is easily the most memorable of the 18 characters embodied by the 56-year-old actor in this rhythmic revival of his 1989 play, which opened on Broadway a year ago and is touring the country. With a few deft strokes, Palminteri cleanly sketches Sonny's defining characteristics. We quickly learn about his stamping grounds at the corner of East 187th Street and Belmont Avenue, his sado-comic predilection for locking cronies in the bathroom of the local bar whenever they step out of line, and his habit of gesticulating with his pinkie and index finger extended, gangster-style (a motion Palminteri repeats unnecessarily often).

Sonny is also responsible for bankrolling much of A Bronx Tale's narrative buck. When Sonny shoots a man in broad daylight following a disagreement ostensibly over a parking spot, Cologio, who witnessed the crime from his stoop, doesn't rat him out. Sonny starts to take an interest in the boy; despite his father's warning to keep his distance, Cologio continues to spend time with the hoodlum. Sonny treats him like a son, giving him money and preaching a life philosophy that couldn't be more different from Lorenzo's. While Lorenzo believes in the importance of earning an honest living, Sonny calls the working man a "sucker."

Eight years pass, and Sonny's power within the community grows. A new generation of young Italian-American miscreants (of which the now-17-year-old Cologio plays an increasingly reluctant part) adopts the territorial-tribal instincts of Sonny's gang and wages a war of hate against African-American youths from an adjacent neighborhood. When the racial attacks escalate to gruesome heights, it's Sonny who steps in to save Cologio's life.

Sonny is compelling, but his domination threatens to undermine the solo show experience. A few tweaks to Palminteri's text and director Jerry Zaks' staging would create a better balance among Sonny, Lorenzo, and the other characters. For one thing, the descriptions of Sonny's coterie of sidekicks, including Frankie Coffee Cake (so called owing to his acne-scarred face), Eddie Mush (who turns everything to "mush" because of his bad luck), and Jojo the Whale (no explanation necessary) feel belabored, and you can take only so many fat jokes in one sitting. For another, there's something formulaic about the way in which many solo performers — Palminteri included — spin around and clap to indicate when they're switching roles. But today's top solo theater stars from Josh Kornbluth to Sarah Jones tend to employ slicker techniques, such as textual links or lighting cues, to shift personae.

Palminteri further stresses Sonny's dominance with his appearance: Rather than opting for neutral attire, he dresses like Sonny in a smart charcoal suit, buttondown shirt, and polished black shoes. Add to this the associations that spring to mind from Palminteri's résumé, packed as it is with Italian gangster roles including Sonny in the movie version of A Bronx Tale and Cheech in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, and it's no wonder the kingpin comes to take over the entire show. This reality has an unbalancing effect on the drama. Many creators of successful multicharacter solo shows tend to avoid allowing one character to dominate. The ability of a performer to move chameleon-style among different viewpoints and personalities rather than focus on one persona is what helps us enter into the world of the play and experience its richness. This multiplicity often dissolves if one character overwhelms all the others.

Even if the show is held hostage by the Italian male viewpoint, the high testosterone levels — personified by the figurehead of Sonny — serve to point to a longstanding truth that underpins many Western societies no matter how community-spirited and liberal they claim to be: People are territorial and will sometimes go to dangerous lengths to maintain what they perceive as the status quo. Spike Lee brilliantly dramatized this in his Brooklyn-set Do The Right Thing. It's perhaps no coincidence that Lorenzo tells Cologio at one point to "do the right thing." But when following the law of the street becomes more compelling than following the law of the land, such advice often falls on deaf ears.



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