Chazz Palminteri tells his own coming-of-age story in A Bronx Tale

It's funny how all discussion of the Mafia these days references The Sopranos — that distinctive accent; Carmela's American-Italian cooking with its thick red sauces; the racism and homophobia; the women who were either protected and indulged family members or whores; the vivid energy of the culture; the sense of a tightly closed society whose intense code of honor did nothing to mitigate its obscene violence; the ways in which history and culture were passing these people by, and their struggles to adapt. When I was living in New York in the 1960s, there was nothing particularly exotic about wiseguys; I ran into them all over the place — on dates with my boyfriend Angelo (a television repairman, not connected, though half the people he knew were); on the job as a secretary for an attorney who represented a muscleman called Sonny who'd been in a traffic-accident case (Sonny was so thrilled with his case's compensation that he had to be dissuaded from parking in the middle of the highway in the hopes of getting hit again; when I answered the office phone, he'd greet me with "Hey, get outta my dreams!"); and at a bar in the West Village where I was working one afternoon when a gang of youths came in and beat five customers bloody because the owner had failed to pay protection.

Chazz Palminteri's perspective is different, however, and far more intimate, in A Bronx Tale. He grew up in the Bronx. His father was a hardworking, law-abiding bus driver, his spiritual father a mafioso named Sonny who effectively ran the neighborhood. Palminteri — named Cologero in the play — won Sonny's affection when he was nine years old by remaining silent under police questioning after he'd seen the older man commit murder. This coming-of-age monologue was first staged in 1990; later, Robert De Niro directed a movie version in which De Niro played the father and Palminteri himself played Sonny. The current production is a revival of the original, starring Palminteri.

He's an engaging, energetic performer, and his attachment to the material, and to his own memories, provides a lot of the evening's juice. As the play opens, he directs our attention to the street sign, 187th and Belmont Avenue, then to a narrow brownstone. "This is my building," he says with affectionate pride. "This is my stoop."

Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale.
Joan Marcus
Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale.

He also has a good way with description and anecdote. We meet a lot of colorful characters — the man named "Coffee Cake" for his pocked complexion; the loser Eddie Mush, a guy who generates his massive and mucus-y expectorations at his first-floor window, then hawks the spinning, undulating results onto the sidewalk; JoJo the Whale. We also get a sense of the life and culture, the music and flirtation that filled these streets. And all the while, his two fathers compete for young Cologero's allegiance and struggle to shape his worldview. The working man is a sucker, Sonny insists; the working man is the only true tough guy, says his father. Which feeling is it better to inspire, Cologero ponders: love or fear? Ironically, when he falls for a black girl at his school, his father holds the racist line, while Sonny tells him to follow his heart.

About a third of the way through, A Bronx Tale loses energy. There's too much reminiscing, and Palminteri's trick of clapping his hands sharply to signify a character change becomes intrusive. But the action picks up again when Cologero turns seventeen and starts running with a group of nihilistic teenagers who patrol the neighborhood and sometimes spill out of it looking for blacks to beat up. When he finds himself in a dangerous and fast-moving predicament, it's Sonny who steps in and saves him — but he cannot save Sonny from his own eventual fate.

Though it's less cold-bloodedly violent, A Bronx Tale contains a lot of what we admire in The Sopranos. It has much of the same energy and swagger and expresses a similar sense of belonging and community. The show doesn't provide extraordinary new insights into good and evil, or make you feel deeply for its characters, but it does serve as an interesting tribute to the troubled and troubling god figure of Sonny.

 
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