PROVO — Nick Cristano has a problem. After living near his loving grandparents for his entire life of 29 years, he has a job offer on the other side of the country. But as the only relative who lives near his grandparents, he knows that it will tear them apart if he moves. The conflict between personal goals and family ties is at the heart of Over the River and Through the Woods, a domestic comedy playing now at the Covey Center for the Arts.
Joe DiPietro‘s script is packed with the humor that would fit well into a 1990’s sitcom (“You can’t take a lasagna on the plane.” “Okay. I’ll mail it to you.”) with a touch of Neil Simon (“It’s like a sauna [in here]. I keep expecting naked fat men in towels walking by.”). And I even sensed a touch of Seinfeld influence in the characters’ discussion of the inane details of everyday life. DiPietro’s writing is genuinely funny, though after an hour and 45 minutes (including a 10-minute intermission), it tends to wear thin.
One major drawback with Over the River and Through the Woods, though, is that all four grandparents in the play are stereotypes. Frank Gianelli is the stereotypical immigrant grandfather who reminisces about the old country and how hard it was to adjust to life in America. His wife, Aida Gianelli, is the typical doting grandmother who feels that it is her duty to serve traditional food to any guest, regardless of whether they’re hungry or not. Nunzio Cristano is the archetypal old retired man who spent decades on the same assembly line, while his wife Emma is the canasta-playing meddler. Among the four of them, there’s one who has difficulty driving, a bickering couple, two who can’t get their VCR to work, etc. If one of them had been in the throws of senility, I would have had a bingo on my elderly person stereotype scorecard.
DiPietro’s script relies on the assumption that these grandparents are lovable—and they are to an extent. But the reality is that all four of these characters are trying to kneecap their grandson’s career and independence. Their motives are purely selfish in doing so, and I had difficulty mustering much sympathy for the grandparents as they emotionally manipulated Nick in an attempt to get him to stay near them.
In addition to playing Emma Cristano, Robinne Booth serves as the director of this production. Often when a director is pulling double-duty like this, the scenes become less structured and coherent when the director is on stage. However, Booth never slipped into this trap, and her scenes were as impeccably blocked and orderly as the rest of the play. Booth also helped build a comfortable camaraderie among her cast, and the five actors playing family had an easy familiarity about them.
Given that they were all playing stock characters, the cast had remarkably strong performances. As Nick Cristano, Gavin Gifford had an affable demeanor as an everyman that made me relax in his presence. Nick’s frustration with his grandparents showed that he felt trapped between his grandparents’ traditional Italian culture and American ambition. Gifford also had a nice northeastern tone to his voice that made Nick believable as a lifelong native of New Jersey. Linda Garay was the strongest performer as Aida Gianelli, though, with her boundless energy and willingness to go out of her way to make her guests comfortable. Garay played the cute old lady well, and I thought her best moment was when she sweetly explained why Nick’s parents moved to Florida. Booth’s performance as Emma was another highlight of the evening because of her slightly nasal voice and forthright attitude that made her a believable busybody. Her willingness to butt into Nick’s life made her a helicopter parent avant la letre. These two women were the best at producing laughs, and I could not find a flaw in their performances.
The other three cast members were less satisfying. As Frank Gianelli, Lon Keith‘s accent was inconsistent, as it switched from thick Italian to a slight southern drawl—sometimes in the same sentence. This was most noticeable when Frank tells the story of how he came to America. Keith is also too young (probably in his 50’s) to convincingly play a great-grandfather whose early mental deterioration makes him confuse the gas pedal and the brake pedal. But Keith had a lovely relationship with his on-stage wife, and I enjoyed the male pride his character took in being a longtime breadwinner. Ben Wake played Nunzio Cristano competently, though the script didn’t give him much to do because the character clearly takes a backseat to his wife, Emma. The weakest performer in the cast was Kestley Pierce as Caitlin O’Hara, a woman that Nick’s grandparents set him up with in an attempt to give him a reason to stay in New Jersey. Pierce’s line deliveries were subdued and lacked variety. Whether Caitlin was telling a story about her own grandmother or flirting with Nick, Pierce’s voice had a similar cadence, and she had a difficulty establishing a emotional connection with anyone else in the cast.
The black box at the Covey Center for the Arts is not known for visual extravaganzas, but I still enjoyed some of the technical elements. Most noticeable was the set, which was exquisite in its expansive use of wallpaper, an incredibly realistic fireplace, and no less than 22 framed family portraits—just as one would expect in a house run by a doting grandmother. The attention to detail was impressive, and even the crochet mantle cover seemed like the perfect detail to bring the Gianelli living room to life. Unfortunately, there was no set designer credited, though a team of six individuals constructed the set. Connie Jackson’s costumes were all appropriate for the 1990’s, and the pleated pants and patterned silk ties reminded me of the fashions from 20 years ago.
If audience members can get past the script problems and the near-constant schmaltz, then Over the River and Through the Woods is a nice way to spend an evening. Although it is not a Christmas play, it fits well with the season and is a viable alternative to the local holiday theatre staples.