“Hey Mambo! Mambo Italiano!...” plays as you walk into the Acorn Theatre on 42nd street in New York City and take your seat. Truthfully, I couldn’t help dancing just a little bit in the aisle because the song is so catchy. (Ok, I was seat-dancing, too, but I’ll deny anyone saw that!) Maybe I was also dancing because I couldn’t wait to speak with the amazing cast of DINNER WITH THE BOYS after the show, too! (What great guys!)
DINNER WITH THE BOYS is an off-Broadway production perfectly seasoned with the cast of its playwright Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years), actor Ray Abruzzo (The Sopranos), and actor Richard Zavaglia (Donnie Brasco). It serves up a main course of relatable hilarity, line by line, with an intricately detailed set as the backdrop for dinner – with these boys.
Even if you’re not Italian, you become Italian for the evening – you convert. You just can’t help it as you submerse yourself into an ambiance of classic Italian music, a pre-show announcement that all cell phones need to be off or the mob will – ahem - take care of the situation, and if you are sitting close enough to the stage, you can smell a hint of garlic from the real sauce (Insert: “gravy”) cooked up for the performance. Here I was anticipating a show that would make me laugh, sprinkled with a little Italian mobster (and food) flare. That’s exactly what was served up!
You’ll have to go see DINNER WITH THE BOYS to find out why two mobsters have sort of “retired”, where most of the famiglia thinks that they are now ghosts. However, they have been living in secrecy, together, as a contemporary version of “The Odd Couple” in New Jersey suburbia, working towards fulfilling their final orders.
Besides the excellent type casting and character execution of the roles, seemingly written for the trio of Lauria, Abruzzo, and Zavaglia, what else did I find really impressive about this show? For starters, check out the set. The meticulously detailed background is three dimensional in ways that allow the audience to immerse themselves in the action and feel like they are on the patio with Charlie (Dan Lauria) and Dom (Richard Zavaglia), largely due to the sliding doors leading from the kitchen, which are perpendicular to the stage.
And, an authentic Italian dinner would not be so without real food. Zavaglia takes on the role of the chef / Italian patriarch (or is it is a “made” matriarch?), always offering food, which, paves the way for conversation, as it does in any traditional Italian household, and in this case, serves as the basis for everyone to come to the table and tell it like it is.
Here, have some broccoli rabe…
The actors actually have to drink wine (cranberry juice with a bit of red food coloring to deepen the crimson hue), and eat the food (salad, pasta, and cheesecake) as part of their scenes, so this is not ordinary prop food, either! From the real potatoes that Lauria peels on the patio, to the onions he slices in the kitchen - these touches make you feel right at home – like you are invited to dinner with them – and buy into the realism as you do into the real food. (Usually, on set of a theatrical production or film, if real food is used, it’s cooked for plate placement, and you’re lucky if your pasta is barely pliable. This is not the case here!)
Scenic designer Jessica Parks truly outdoes herself with attention to detail. In addition to the aforementioned environmental elements, above every doorway, for Italian realism, you’ll find either a cross, or iconic / classic representation of the church. Kudos to props master, Andrew Diaz, who sees to it that you feel at home, right down to the refrigerator magnets and well-placed wine bottles in the “Boys’” kitchen. And there are little things that matter, including the smallest of props, such as Zavaglia’s coffee mug that says “Mom” on it, as his manly mafia maternal side comes out in the second act when he sips coffee from it while reciting his lines. These meticulous details make the production all come together to transport you into a hidden suburb of New Jersey, where these old time gangsters are living off of the grid.
“I love playing Uncle Sid, and here we made it a complete surprise. We made it a double whammy,” shares Abruzzo about his favorite scene. He somehow executes double the dialogue, bringing each character to life in a unique way, right down to the way he speaks!
Something you may not know is that in this multi-layered stage set is that the fence in back of the rear wall of the kitchen is actually about 3 feet away from it. There is no background painted onto the kitchen windows. Instead, the actors are able to walk through the rear kitchen door; and if you move your head from side to side while seated, you can verify that there’s another layer to what’s literally behind the scene, as the fence posts naturally present themselves as solid objects, and not a painted poster. This brings me to one of the funny post-performance moments where Abruzzo reenacts what he does, half hunched over, as he admits he has to crouch down below the kitchen window to be sure he isn’t seen as a shadow, prior to his entry as Uncle Sid. We laughed about how he not only puts in a performance, but gets to test his flexibility at the same time.
“I like the second act when I want to open up a restaurant and the betrayal scene is revealed,” Zavaglia says when it comes to the scene he loves the most. “I get to do some real acting there.”
As far as his favorite moments from this off-Broadway show, Abruzzo truly appreciates everyone who comes to the performances.
“Some people that show up I haven’t seen for 47 years! My high school English teacher came last night. He directed the first play I was in,” Abruzzo shared. In high school he wasn’t sure about trying out for plays, but once he saw that the front row was filled with the most beautiful girls in school, that clinched it for him! And so started his life of acting!
Lauria, Zavaglia and Abruzzo do know each other outside of DINNER WITH THE BOYS.
“These guys are old friends. We’ve been really good friends for over twenty years. It’s fun to just be with friends. We did this [play] in Jersey and we all lived in the same house for 7 weeks. If you can survive that, then you can survive anything,” Abruzzo joked. “It’s fun working with them.”
After you see them in the play, you can just imagine how this trio translates a roommate situation to the stage. They don’t have to reach far to deliver dialogue that is chronically comedic. Lauria exploits the humor with one liners, such as “Wait til you see what I’ll do to your zucchini,” when Zavaglia (Dom) interjects his own flavor into Lauria’s garden-perfect pickings, which lead to the most interesting dinners revolving around an old debt that these retired mobsters are paying off in a very, um, culinary way. Let’s just say there are no bodies to hide the way they do business. There’s nothing as delicious as the finality of following orders, or watching your garden grow greener because you’ve literally infused your fertilizer with your friend.
“I’m very anxious to get back to horseback riding and sitting by the ocean,” shares Abruzzo about his favorite way to relax. He’s very bi-coastal and lives by the ocean in California. “I’m scheduled to go back to LA 7/1. We didn’t know how long it was going to run. I’ll probably pick up a part on a TV series. That kind of work always comes up fast.”
“This is fun. It doesn’t matter what the role is, but it starts with the writing. Plus, I die 16 times a week! (on stage)” he laughs.
The way Abruzzo convinces you that he’s a gangster seems to come naturally to him. But playing a mobster wasn’t something he always portrayed.
“I never played a mobster until The Sopranos. I usually only played doctors and lawyers, and once The Sopranos happened – now I play mobsters since that.”
Zavaglia has a play he wrote called “Burning Desire” that he’s working on with Lou Diamond Phillips. They are hoping to bring it to Waterbury, CT at the Seven Angels Theatre this winter. He also just finished a memoir entitled “Dark at the Roots”. The title is a take-off from his former career as a – hairdresser!
“I’m a street kid from North Jersey,” Zavaglia told me. I drove a trailer and after almost getting killed on the New Jersey Turnpike, I quit, and became a hairdresser!”
As we sat at the table on set, Abruzzo interjected with his on-the-spot sarcasm “A lot of truck drivers become hairdressers.” (Right?)
After watching the show, I could inevitably expect no less during the interview, and chimed in guessing that Zavaglia must have met Abruzzo and Lauria while giving them haircuts. But actually, in his late 20’s he pursued acting and eventually ran a playwrights committee with Lauria, which is how they met Abruzzo.
“Dan would get big stars to read them (the screen plays),” continued Zavaglia. DINNER WITH THE BOYS was originally done as a reading, too.
If you like double entendre dialogue, and have a craving for a spicy show with a bit of that Italian mobster flair, DINNER WITH A BOYS is something that you must experience. DON’T fuggedaboutit! You gotta get with these guys during their last week before they go dark!
Get your tickets here! It’s a limited engagement until June 28th!
You can even wine and dine with the cast post performance!
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