Take a bunch of commedia dell’arte conventions, run them through the genius of Molière to give them a comic plot on which to hang their zany antics, and then plop them into the world of the modern American mafia, and what do you get?
You get Jeffrey Binder’s looney tunes, funny-meets-slapstick-violent Scapino, which is playing for just another week at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
Binder takes the frame of his plot from Molière: in the original, two patriarchs have arranged for their sons to marry women they’ve chosen for them, but the sons have fallen in love on their own and enlist the help of the scheming genius Scapin to trick their fathers out of money and help them remain with the women they’ve chosen. Binder’s adaptation of the play boots it up a notch for a modern audience. He sets his play in Naples, Florida, and makes the two fathers hardened mob rivals who seek to end a long-running and murderous feud through matrimony. Don Albert (David Whalen) has arranged for his son Octavio (Ethan Saks) to marry the daughter of Don Jerry Geronte (Wesley Mann); but Octavio has, in his father’s absence, married Chloe (Morgan Snowden), a big-haired girl who minces into this play in her tight black pants and gold stilettos straight out of the Sopranos (excellent costuming by Kim Brown plays wittily with stereotypes in a modern upgrade of the commedia convention). At the same time, Don Geronte’s hotheaded son Leo (Jack Lafferty) has gone head-over-heels for a hippy-dippy flower child named Feather (Sarah Silk), also against his father’s wishes. The two sons enlist the help of the smugly confident lawyer-fixer Scapino (Jeffrey Binder) to get them out of the mess with their fathers and avoid punishment; along the way, Scapino – with some help from Octavio’s “personal assistant” Sylvester (Phillip Taratula) – scams a bit of money for himself out of the two Dons, doles out some revenge for a past injury, and gets his own rather humiliating comeuppance.
You’ll see the resolution of this play coming from a mile away, but the plot is really not the point here; as with traditional commedia, the story is simply a delivery vehicle for nonstop verbal wit and physical hijinks. The comedy here comes fast and furious – almost too fast, I dare say, for the jokes pile up so quickly that there’s hardly time to react. The structure of the play has a quasi-vaudevillian quality that director Andrew Paul handles with panache, shifting the playing style with ease between scripted scenes of dialogue, improvisational lazzi, dance interludes, and goofy physical comedy.
While the production is mostly a “bada-bing bada-boom” caricature of the world of mafia dons and their prickly pride, there’s an undercurrent of menace that raises the stakes and leaves you, at times, with your laughter sticking in your throat. Molière filled his plays with unsympathetic characters; Binder doubles down on that strategy, giving us a world of characters whose troubles are difficult to commiserate with and whose victories are hardly something to celebrate.
Johnmichael Bohach’s set resembles a cartoon postcard of a beach, and Alex Stevens’s lighting design makes it pop as if it were under a bright hot Florida sun (don’t worry – the theater is nicely air-conditioned, so you get the vibe but not the feel of the Florida heat). The acting style is also broad and cartoonish, at times a bit overmuch so; the play starts at an 11 out of 10 on the ostentation scale and expands from there. Paul has assembled a team of terrific actors, but not all of them manage to find the sweet spot between playfulness and sincerity that allows this style of comedy to zing. In that respect, Binder is the standout – he seems to understand the playing style in his bones and has a relaxed and grounded approach to his character that gives him fluidity, lightness, and absolute command of the stage.
Comic as the play’s energy is, Binder’s take on this story veers, in the second act, into pretty menacing territory – so menacing, in fact, that at one point Sarah Silk, as Feather, breaks character to reassure us that we’re still watching a comedy. Moreover, even though the action ends in the de rigeur wedding celebration, it’s not at all clear that what we’ve witnessed is anything like a happy ending. The more I think about it, the more that seems the right choice in our current socio-political moment: for all his scheming, Scapino has managed in the end merely to cement in place a terrifying power status quo – and as we all know, there’s really nothing funny about that.