Review: 'Ninth and Joanie' is bleak, but memorable

JENNIFER FARRAR Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- The terribly unlucky Italian family at the heart of Brett C. Leonard's bleak new play "Ninth and Joanie" just can't catch a break.

The primary characters are a father and son whose relationship is already marked by a tragedy that occurred 15 years before we meet them, which is just after the funeral of another close family member in South Philadelphia in 1986.

Mark Wing-Davey directs the dark domestic drama, which is presented off-Broadway by Labyrinth Theater Company at their intimate Bank Street Theater and opened Wednesday. A number of extremely slow, lengthy, wordless interludes accurately convey the stagnancy of the characters' stunted lives, but unfortunately, are over-indulged to such a degree that they diminish some of the power of the actors' work.

The play begins with an extended period of almost no dialogue at all, as first Charlie Molino (Bob Glaudini) and then his adult son, Rocco (Kevin Corrigan), enter their darkened, claustrophobic living room. As they slowly remove their suits and shoes and enter into their depressing domestic routine, they reveal a lot about their personalities and relationship without ever saying a word.

Although Rocco (appealingly portrayed by Corrigan) appears to be a dutiful son, he's also an angry man, covered with many unexplained ugly bruises and scars. While slightly mentally challenged, he's smart enough to know he's trapped in this unhappy home, and finds peace by ritualistically using his Ouija board to keep connected to his dead sister and mother. With random hand-weaving gestures and quirky behavioral tics, Corrigan creates a memorable persona of an earnest, loving, but sadly damaged man.

His dour father, Charlie, a man of few words -- most of them nasty or hectoring -- is played with tense restraint by Glaudini. Slumped in gray long johns in his recliner, with weird goggles over his eyes, Charlie keeps a glass of whiskey in his hand and a cigar in his mouth. He has clearly always ruled the roost by fear, never acknowledging that his "tough love" method of parenting has had disastrous results, which are gradually revealed to extend way beyond poor Rocco.

His only sign of affection is to stare enigmatically while Rocco plays a 45-inch record of Vic Damone's "An Affair to Remember" for him, on command, which happens several times during the play.

When estranged son Mike (an energetic, moving Dominic Fumusa) bursts in, he frenetically breathes some life into the room and into his brother Rocco. But Charlie gruffly refuses to acknowledge Mike's perceived truths, which are that Charlie's cold-hearted manipulation of events after the accidental death of his 13-year-old daughter has led to more death and damaged lives.

The first act ends quite darkly, but then Act 2 opens with the surprising appearance of Mike's previously unmentioned young family. His wife, Isabella (a firmly frowning, strong performance by Rosal Colon), seethes with quite justified hatred for Charlie. Yet, astoundingly, Mike's lively little son, Carlito, (given innocent charm by Samuel Mercedes) was named for his grandfather.

The implausible idea that somebody raised by racist, bitter Charlie could become a kind, loving father himself is presented through the redemptive presence of 7-year-old Carlito. He chirpily shares happy memories of his father, providing a slightly hopeful note for the future of this ill-fated family.