Charlie (the inimitable Dan Lauria) and Dom (Richard Zavaglia in a brilliant turn) are close buddies, with employment issues and location problems. They have been holed up for months enjoying Leo’s garden and Dom’s exquisite cooking while waiting for a resolution which Big Anthony Jr. (a wonderful Ray Abruzzo in a campy performance), will eventually deliver so that all their problems are solved. However, Big Anthony Jr. will also come with a proposition that they cannot refuse, a proposition which will leave one or both of them dead.
But most of the others in La Famiglia think that Dom and Charlie are dead already, punished for not doing a job properly. Now, I ask you, “What’s up with these wise guys?” Are they to be trusted with each other? And what happened to their best friend Leo, whom the boss of La Famiglia ordered them to send to eternity?
Dinner With The Boys is writer/actor Dan Lauria’s romp through the guts, flesh, bones and characters of these two affable, warm-hearted and completely wild and crazy hit men for whom nothing is impossible if it involves dispatching an enemy who is out to get them. The production, ingeniously directed by Frank Megna, is full of wit and superb ironic touches (check out the lighting and music selections). It is a frenetic lark and in-your-face dark comedy about the outer limits of hit-man survival tactics, the first being: “Watch your back,” the second being: “Trust no one, not even your best friends.” And as for the rest? Just imagine zany, macabre, gruesome, and hysterical, in a no-holds-barred sardonic comedy similar to The Norwegians (a funny production that ran for an extended time Off Broadway). Dinner With The Boys makes the humor in Goodfellas appear tame by comparison.
The play opens with domesticated Dom and Charlie who are living a very quiet life cooking, gardening, keeping house and reminiscing about the “good old violent days” when Charlie was a “made man” and Dom, the outsider and on the fringe of things, was Charlie’s close friend, always willing to help in an unassuming and humble way. Their current “down-home” remote life is the opposite of their former tumultuous and bloody existence with La Famiglia, a past that Charlie enjoys discussing with Dom. In the opening scenes Charlie in broad tones shares the “great times” liberally, and Don encourages him; he apparently enjoys listening to Charlie’s blood-letting adventures.
Though Charlie had sworn not to reveal how he and Leo in the most gruesome ways imaginable sent one hardened thug sailing off the Brooklyn Bridge and another on a cooking journey finding fire along the way, he is eloquent, horrifying and funny. Charlie throws all promises for secrecy out the window and the occasion is used for Dom’s and his entertainment as they reflect “gangland style” about where they are and what they were forced to give up.
We are appalled and yet gradually find their interactions more darkly humorous. This is because Lauria and Zavaglia are so good, and also because we realize that these two not only wacked, but they are wacked and cracked, and they are not even on drugs. Interestingly, we are seduced to like them because perhaps they are a bit like us, they appreciate ethics. They are able to tell the difference between those with an empathetic heart who follow wise guy ethics like their friend Leo, and those who are just plain psycho-killing lunatics, like Big Anthony Jr., the gentleman they are waiting for.
Of course, they, on the other hand, do not fit in either category. In fact one of the driving forces of the production is that though we may think we know them, they are impossible to pin down and continually surprise us. Their characterizations and the arc of the plot are both extremely well crafted, and who Dom and Charlie are revealed to be is one of the beautiful threads of Lauria’s writing, which keeps you engrossed with each twist and turn until the end of the play.
It is as we are drawn into their wise guy antics that we realize how great a chef Dom is, for he is preparing supper with the thought that the shoe may drop and Big Anthony Jr. will finally arrive to share the repast with them. They have been waiting for the cold, unethical killer to show up for Dom’s special meal, the “last supper,” whose ingredients and superb cuisine Big Anthony Jr. has been avidly waiting to feast upon.
Dom’s and Charlie’s conversation moves back and forth between the brutality of their murders and the focus of every Italian male’s heartstrings, delicious food. As Dom references the sumptuous cuisine he cooked for La Famiglia when he and Charlie were back in the city and things were going well, even non-Italians will understand the food references because Italian and Italian-American cuisine has become so ubiquitous and so beloved; the “scarole” and the “little meatballs” are now typical fare at many Italian restaurants.
One of the joys of Lauria’s writing is how the Italian blockbuster tropes, the mouth-watering cuisine and the thriving garden (fresh, lush tomatoes mulched with the finest most nutritious ingredients that a human could deliver), are pitted against the act of killing. Conversations about the sustenance of life and the beautiful garden are interspersed with remembrances of brutal murders, a juxtaposition of the pleasurable and vital with the horrible and fearful. It is at once shocking, marvelous, hysterical and incredibly, darkly sardonic. But the juxtaposition is also a setup, and this sprinkling and intermingling of topics, delectable food and bloody murdering gore, makes complete sense by the end of the play.
It is also one of Lauria’s sly, subterranean themes. As with the violence surrounding us in the news and in entertainment coupled with ordinary, everyday routines, after a while we become inured. Thus, the conversation and character of these two, what they have done and what they eventually do during the play, insinuates itself into our consciousness. It becomes something we accept and something we even find in the extremity of the circumstances crazily, bizarrely humorous.
For example, when Dom and Charlie have a vibrant discussion about their friend Leo’s sympathetic nature, it is as a backdrop for when Leo is killing someone who, according to La Famiglia ethics, “deserves to die.” Nevertheless, Leo feels bad for the “mark” and “kindly” puts him out of his misery. Dom and Charles deem Leo a friend to be respected and admired. But where is their friend Leo, after all?
Of course, the ironic humor is this: if Leo was really “empathetic” he would get out of the killing business. Likewise, if these two wise guys appreciated the preciousness of human life, they wouldn’t be destroying it or making useless excuses about who deserves to live or die in justification of their killings. As Lauria’s fine writing hints, by the play’s conclusion, we laugh because we understand the incredible hypocrisy of these characters and how blind and foolish they are. It is truly hysterical. But as we are laughing at them, whether we wish to recognize it or not, they have become, as Dom suggests, what they have devoured, and it is like a Trojan Horse which is destroying them from the inside out. They see but do not viscerally understand what they are doing to themselves, so they can’t stop it or change.
At the end of the play, are we appalled by Dom and Charlie as we were at the beginning? No. We laugh. Somehow, it’s OK. By the end we have been mesmerized by their charm, their hysterical relationship, Dom’s and Charlie’s endearing qualities and their manipulative natures. We go along with their way of thinking, as macabre and wrongheaded as it is. We consider: Maybe some ratty criminals deserve to die after all, as long as we are not the rats and as long as “the bad guys” are far from us.
After all, isn’t it a good thing that there are those who appoint themselves the executioners to get rid of those who harm others? It’s a rough, wild west justice, but what goes around comes around. And we are grateful that there are those who will send bad folks on their way and make a pleasurable time of it with food and wine. These two won’t be the first to go to their graves “getting away with murder.” And who’s to care if criminal devours criminal? As long as it doesn’t come to our doorstep, we are fine; we can sit back and laugh.
Dinner With The Boys is a wonderful production on many levels. The actors are just great, the direction is spot-on and all of the production values cohere cleverly, enriching the comedy and the dark undercurrents seamlessly. However, it all begins with the play itself. Lauria’s writing talents are at full throttle and the actors revel with abandon in his characters, perfectly shepherded by Megna’s conceptualization. All combine to make a production too good to miss.
Dinner With The Boys is currently in previews at The Acorn Theatre and will open on Monday, May 4.