Theater review: 'The Prince of Atlantis' at South Coast Repertory
There’s a by-the-numbers quality to Steven Drukman’s “The Prince of Atlantis,” a play that sets out to please audiences by giving them a theatrical variation of what they’ve experienced on TV.
A good percentage of Saturday’s matinee audience at South Coast Repertory, where the work is having its world premiere, seemed to eat it up. I found it contrived and tedious, but as dramedies (awful word) go, it hits all the requisite emotional marks while cracking just enough jokes to be labeled harmlessly diverting, at least by those who don’t have any problems with ethnic caricature.
The twist here is that the play’s stereotypical Italian American characters hail from the Greater Boston area neighborhood of Nonantum, a community in Newton that has a distinctive patois, in which “wonga” means “money” and “cuya moi” is how to tell someone to “shut up!” But beyond the way the men affectionately call each other “mush,” it’s the same bada-bing, bada-boom meatball hero subculture that never seems to go out of style in popular entertainment.
Joey Colletti (John Kapelos), a gruff character who could easily be a “Sopranos” extra were it not for his thick Boston accent, is in jail for some funny business having to do with mislabeling imports at his successful seafood company. He has an urgent request for his brother Kevin (Matthew Arkin), a sensitive sad sack who enjoys smoking pot and quoting from “Hamlet” in the most incongruous of situations.
Joey has recently been contacted by a young man named Miles Overten (Brett Ryback), who claims to be the son he fathered when he was 17. Not wanting his boy to know he’s locked up, Joey asks Kevin to pose as him via email and explain that he’s in Asia for the next nine months, while he finishes out his sentence.
While Kevin is at Joey’s nautical-styled McMansion contacting Miles, Connie Bonfiglio (Nike Doukas), Joey’s tough-talking girlfriend (another character straight out of central casting) barges in and disrupts the plan. Miles, a sweet-natured bisexual book editor on the cusp of 30, winds up driving up from New York and a case of mistaken identity (Kevin pretends he’s his dad) turns into a more complicated exploration of fate, fatherhood and the unexpected truth that can reside in fiction.
Drukman has a penchant for exaggerating the speech styles of his characters. His earlier play “In This Corner,” about boxing great Joe Louis, was notable chiefly for its slangy, poetry-slam-inspired cadences. In “The Prince of Atlantis” he mixes like a mad DJ Boston argot with Nonantum jargon, Kevin’s Shakespearean paraphrases and a whole mess of SAT vocabulary Joey has picked up while studying the dictionary in the clink. The verbal antics are lively, but it’s just window dressing on a shopworn plot.
The production, directed by Warner Shook, balances the play’s jokiness and sentimentality, never letting one completely topple the other. Given that much of the action takes place inside a home that, as Miles puts it, looks as if it was decorated by the Little Mermaid on acid, this is actually quite impressive. (Thomas Buderwitz’s scene-stealing set, with its octopus chandelier and mermaid artwork, imagines “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” plunged to the bottom of the sea.)
Kapelos and Arkin seem a little too old for their roles (their characters are in their mid- to late 40s, though both men appear to be firmly ensconced in their 50s), but they certainly make a vividly contrasting pair. Kapelos’ Joey is as brash and bullying as Arkin’s Kevin is hapless and compassionate, and their odd couple pairing helps to boisterously sell the story.
Strutting about in skimpy outfits that require her to don an orange prison top when she visits Joey, Doukas’ feisty Connie, who gets the show’s biggest laughs, could be a godmother on “Jersey Shore.” Ryback lends Miles a fresh-faced sincerity that forces the rest of the cast to take his character’s search for his identity seriously.
Touching in an obvious and not particularly convincing way, “The Prince of Atlantis” seems tailor-made for TV couch potatoes who don’t mind every now and again getting off their sofas for their programs.
-- Charles McNulty
"The Prince of Atlantis," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 29. $20-$68. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Photos: Upper: John Kapelos and Matthew Arkin. Credit: Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times. Lower: Thomas Buderwitz's nautical-themed McMansion set. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times