H. G. Brown's new heist tale centers on Eddie Hajazi, a charmer with a cruel streak who needs a crew to help him pull off a big maritime heist. Played with sleazy suavity by Robert Funaro (known to many as Eugene Pontecorvo on The Sopranos,) Eddie artfully appeals to the needs and the dreams of three local men. Mal (Robert Sheridan) is a former contraband runner gone straight, now trying to make a settled life for himself and his new wife, Bev (Vivienne Leheny), as a modest innkeeper. George (Gordon Silva) tends bar at Mal's place, and Harley (Jack Rodgerson) is a piano-playing dockworker down on his luck. Three women complicate the scheme: the hardworking, morally centered Bev; Harley's girl Alice (Kelli K. Barnett), an oversexed stripper with a heart of gold; and most of all, Bev's friend Joyce (Kate Udall), a sultry newspaper writer.
Even these colorful characters are almost upstaged, early on, by Joseph Spirito's spectacular set. Though Mal and Bev are slowly renovating the inn, the barroom where the action takes place is a character of its own. The stained wood sings with color and history, while the wall decor and the jukebox (stocked only with oldies) define a worn and comfortable sailors' haven. Luckily, Brown's snappy dialogue and director Stephen Sunderlin's brisk staging keep us focused on the action.
Act I's character introductions and set-up scenes boast a sprightly, slightly elevated dialogue that's reminiscent of Lanford Wilson's (think Hot L Baltimore,) but delivered by the cast in a way that sometimes crosses the line from animated into hammy. It feels to me as if director and cast are a bit hamstrung (no pun intended) by an inconsistency of tone. The script is part gangsters-and-molls (think Key Largo) and part late 20th century TV comedy-drama. One wishes it would go all the way in one direction or the other. This flaw prevents the play rising above clever entertainment to become higher art.
Joyce, the writer, is the epitome of this conflict. Though Udall fleshes her out with a rich and funny performance, she's an anachronism in a story that's meant to take place in 1984. Some of her speeches feel like a nostalgic 1940s High Hollywood take on journalistic intrepidity. On the other hand, Udall and Barnett play out their scenes of drunken female bonding with vigorous humor, and both their characters attain a level of depth that's a credit to their performances, the playwright's skill with characterization, and the director's vision.
I also found Eddie's roguish appeal to the women difficult to credit. As played by Funari, his charm is so patently artificial that one would expect even a hard case like Alice to see right through it. The philosophical Mal and even the bitter Harley have no trouble discerning Eddie's rascality, only casting their lot with him out of acknowledged greedy or desperate motivations. And Bev, the moral center of the play, wants no part of his scheming.
The show is quite entertaining despite those flaws. Its length and pacing are exactly right, and it has some wrenching moments – especially in the women's scenes – where the raw underside of humanity is exposed to the wind and the sea spray that you can almost feel through the windows of the weathered barroom of the Carney Hook Marina Motel.
Through Oct. 21 at the Tada! Theater, 15 W. 28 St., NYC. Tickets online or call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 (toll free).