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Gallery Players’ production of "Over the River" gets high marks

for The Brooklyn Paper

First let me confess. I love "Over the River and Through the Woods." I loved the play when I saw it off-Broadway several years ago. I think Joe Di Pietro’s script is brilliant, and so I was looking forward to the Gallery Players’ production that opened Feb. 23.

Despite my high expectations, I was not disappointed by this latest production, directed by Sue Glausen Smith.

The only problem with the revival is that it has just a three-week run. That means you only have four more opportunities to see it.

"Over the River and Through the Woods," is about a young man, 29-year-old Nick Cristano (Joe DiGennaro) who, as the title implies, visits his grandparents. Nick is blessed with two sets of living grandparents, Frank (Charles Fatone) and Aida (Dolores Kenan) Gianelli, and Nunzio (Hal Smith-Reynolds) and Emma (Dianne Barranca) Cristano, whom he visits on Sundays in the Gianellis’ Brooklyn home.

In numerous monologues, Nick makes it abundantly clear that his grandparents are overindulgent, overbearing and overprotective overeaters who live in overheated houses. With his parents in Florida and his sister in San Diego, he is all they have. Which is what makes his decision to accept a promotion that will take him to Washington ("the far-away one") especially painful.

In an effort to keep their grandchild in New York City, Emma invites an eligible young woman, Caitlin O’Hare (a sensible yet saucy Rachel Feldman), to Sunday dinner. Caitlin is a vegetarian and a nurse, which the grandparents interpret as a kind of nurse who takes care of animals. But she is also sweet and interesting and apparently a good cook. The Cristanos and Gianellis cross themselves and wait while Nick starts the relationship off on the wrong foot and then tries to patch things up.

Of course, Nick is not his grandparents’ only worry. Frank keeps banging up the car but refuses to turn in his car keys. Nunzio is suffering from a spreading cancer. And the world has left all of them behind, unable to figure out the difference between a VCR and a CPU. But for these traditional Italians, no problem is unbearable if one has the support and love of family - the stability of which young Nick is currently threatening.

There are some reviewers (and, I suspect, a few in the audience) who might believe "Over the River" is overly sentimental. They might also complain that it portrays Italians in a stereotypical way. These are the same people who didn’t cry when Old Yeller died and suspect Schindler somehow made money off the Jews in his care. For the rest of us, the play is a heartwarming story with just enough irony, humor and good sense to keep it on this side of maudlin.

Nick’s grandparents may confuse a podiatrist with a psychiatrist and Gary Cooper with Clark Gable, but they certainly know that a man needs a woman, a couple needs children and life needs to be lived. One can’t help but think that Nick (played to callow perfection by DiGennaro) would be a lot better off if he spent more time listening to them and less time complaining.

If Di Pietro’s script is a gift, this cast surely knows how to unwrap it. Fatone, Kenan, Smith-Reynolds and Barranca, walk, act and talk exactly like many, many older Italians I have known. Walk down the streets of Brooklyn and, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a few of them, too. These grandparents are as believable as the Sunday dinner they eat.

And that brings us to Smith’s excellent staging, which includes not only set designer Todd Reemtsma’s loving re-creation of a Brooklyn home, but also a real dinner that fills the theater with mouthwatering aromas. Make sure you eat before seeing this play, or you’ll be drooling into your program.

If you’re still hesitating over whether or not to see "Over the River," let me add that the play received an unprecedented and much deserved second curtain call on opening night. The applause came after an evening filled with laughter and tears. (If you’re susceptible, bring a box of tissues).

"Over the River" tells a story that we all know or wish we knew. As Caitlin says to Nick, "How many young adults get to have dinner with all four grandparents?" Indeed!

If there’s anyone out there who can’t understand the universal messages delivered by this traditional Italian family living in Brooklyn - wake up and smell the veal cutlet. "Over the River" takes us all to a grandfather’s house far more real than any we have ever seen - the emotional space that lies in our hearts.


The Gallery Players presents "Over the River and Through the Woods" through March 10 - Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 for children under 12 and seniors. The theater is located at 199 14th St. at Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. For more information, call (718) 595-0547.

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