America loves its gangsters. Not the real ones, of course: We like our gangsters safely enshrined in the movies or on stage, and we like them to be Italian (one more outrageous prejudice). But while we admire the consummate movie godfather, Don Corleone, he's still pretty scary; once in a while we need to laugh at the image of our mafiosi so we won't have nightmares about them. That's where Breaking Legs comes in. The sardonic new comedy by Tom Dulack, now at the Rivertree Theatre, is full of knowing references to The Godfather and various other movie and TV mobsters. The thugs who people the play are not particularly softened for the sake of comedy--they are all quite capable of murder. In fact, the tension between the imminence of brutal force and the parody of the mob lifestyle helps make the play a scream.

The Rivertree production has a few problems, but they are easy enough to overlook most of the time. You're just too busy watching Rachel Shwayder as the silky Angie seduce the man she has selected for a husband to worry about the occasionally sloppy pacing. You're too busy laughing at the grim wit of Angie's "Uncle Mike" Francisco (Pat Mahoney) to worry about the less amusing performance by Gary Cupp as Terence O'Keefe, the English professor turned playwright upon whom Angie has set her sights. If the timing sometimes slides out of whack or one of the performers loses his Italian-American accent for half a moment, who cares?

Director Mary Chandler's conception for the production is sound. She keeps the action moving with a comically constant stream of gourmet dishes served up to the characters, and she keeps the actors centered nicely in the exaggerated subculture the play mocks. The Rivertree's stage is a small space, but Chandler uses it well, creating an intimate atmosphere that helps underscore the play's dark humor. The Italians are all so familial.

Angie and her father, Lou, run a fine Italian restaurant. Angie pulls in 50K a year (who knows what other "legit" businesses the family may be into), but there's something missing in her life. Lou wants Angie to marry and move her husband into the cozy family domicile--anyone who can produce grandchildren will do. And Angie knows how to deal with the sentimental thugs in her life, including Uncle Mike.

Enter Professor O'Keefe, a former teacher of Angie's and the love of her 28-year-old life. Terry has written a play and has come to Angie's rich dad for financial backing. He may not fully realize Lou's mob connections, but he soon will. Lou invites Uncle Mike and his henchman Tino in on the deal, and before he knows it, Terry gets dragged into the gangster life, penning a eulogy for a dead mobster who failed to pay back a loan and listening to the changes Mike and Lou think he should make in his script.

Then there's the murder. Mike, Lou and Tino are not capable of self-reflection, so even the grisly killing they commit (off stage) comes across as a surreal piece of business. We learn that after beating a deadbeat named Frankie Salvucci nearly to death, they toss him in front of a train. Thereafter, his demise is referred to as a terrible tragedy, the widow is comforted and the children are provided for. "It makes you think, don't it," muses Mike, "what's it all mean? Frankie, snuffed out before his time."

The show is filled with ethnic humor. Many of the jokes revolve around food: mouth-watering pastas and elaborate antipasti, the names of which are music to the tongue. When Uncle Mike can't eat a thing because of a sour stomach, Angie soon restores his appetite with a string of fabulous-sounding dishes. It's fitting that the action all takes place in a restaurant, since food is at the center of the gangsters' lives.

Pat Mahoney's Uncle Mike is better than any Saturday Night Live Don Corleone parody. He cultivates a hoarse snicker, a throat-rasping accent and a facial scar that gives him a squint--kind of a perpetual wink, really. His sudden fits of seriousness and abrupt changes in mood keep you off-kilter and snickering with him. Sam Dodero's blase Tino, always standing guard and always vaguely threatening, balances Mahoney's flamboyance. Dana McCarthy as Lou completes the threesome with his portrait of a warm medieval daddy.

The best moment in the play comes when Mike and Lou suffer scruples over backing a play in which a murder is too graphically depicted. They even wonder if Terry might be too coldhearted to associate with. There's something delicious about their hesitation, as if art were more real than life--and as if they were more innocent than the professor who has only imagined what it would be like to kill.


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