Humor doesn't get any darker than Chazz Palminteri's Faithful--at least not without getting sickening. But unlike many purveyors of black comedies, the tough-guy actor-turned-playwright manages to raise the audience's spirits by play's end, much as Woody Allen does in his best comedies. Palminteri skewers vanity, self-deception and especially hypocrisy, and he infuses the whole show with his own personality--another Allen-like trait, though Palminteri has a sense of right and wrong that rarely surfaces in Woody's New York neuroticism.
The production of Palminteri's play now at the Avenue Theater is a lot quirkier and involving than last year's anemic film starring Cher, Ryan O'Neal and Chazz himself. But no movie could do this play justice, anyway--it belongs on stage, in close proximity to the audience. It's at least in part because we're in the same room with these characters that we are kept giddy with laughter. Outrageous, sometimes crass, and emphatically not politically correct, the show lives or dies on what we can be made to feel about its three characters.
First there's Maggie, wife and victim, who is hog-tied and terrorized by the suave, sensitive hitman Tony. Tony may seem tough on the outside, but he's never killed a woman before, and the prospect is distinctly unpleasant to him. Then there's Maggie's husband, Jack, the guy who ordered the hit (or did he?). Handsome Jack may be a slimeball, but he has his reasons.
They're bad reasons, of course, and the fun in this play comes from watching Maggie and Tony sort out the truth along with all the complicated lies. When we first meet Maggie and Tony, an air from the opera Carmen underscores the life-and-death struggle that love can sometimes be. He ties her up and then holds a gun to her head as the phone rings. He's waiting for a signal; when the phone rings twice and then stops, it will mean that Jack has reached his destination and has an alibi. At first Maggie accepts the situation. Tony's doing her a favor, she says; in fact, she was planning on committing suicide, anyway. But knowing that her husband wants her dead turns up the heat in her soul, and she winds up offering Tony $100,000 to knock off her husband, too.
Maggie is a curious, kind lady who thinks less of herself than of others. She even coaxes her would-be murderer to tell her the story of his life. Tony, a consummate professional, is in therapy: He has problems like anybody else. His shrink is a degenerate gambler who's in constant debt to Tony's bookie--so Tony gets his therapy for nothing.
Palminteri takes great pleasure in lampooning the psychiatric profession; the doctor calls several times trying to persuade Tony not to kill Maggie, but he sure doesn't try very hard. That means it's up to Maggie to save herself, and she does it with a wild combination of techniques: real concern for her killer, female wiles, sexual seduction and simple chutzpah. For a three-person play, the plot is fairly complex, and rather than give any more away, let's just say no one trusts anyone and the gun changes hands quite a lot.
Deborah Persoff, who just finished a stint as Eleanor of Aquitane in the Aurora Fox's Lion in Winter and is currently performing in the Schwayder Theatre's Beauty and the Beast, is made for this kind of comedy. She has a way of focusing on the other actors so intently that she creates visible emotional connections with them, and though she projects vulnerability as Maggie, she allows us to see the toughness underneath.
Joseph Miller gives one of the best performances of his career as the philosophical mobster. Brutishly attractive in the role, he has mastered a number of terrific mannerisms without indulging them too far. He gets most of the funniest lines, and he delivers them with precision and style--a crack of the whip that startles us into laughter. As the smooth-tongued villain Jack, Paul Page makes for an exceptionally interesting hypocrite. Even if you know the plot and have seen the film, he will surprise you and keep you wondering if Jack is really all that bad.
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Director Terry Dodd is particularly adept at this kind of fast-paced, sophisticated comedy. He gets all the tensions right in this disciplined madness, keeps everybody on a taut string, and never lets these exuberant actors slide over the top.
Faithful, through April 26 at the Avenue Theater, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 321-5925.