In Tom Dulack’s Breaking Legs at the Arctic Playhouse, college professor Terrence O’Keefe (Jeff Blanchette) has written a play-within-a-play whose goal is to make the audience feel as if they committed a murder, giving them a sense of what that would really feel like. After getting good reviews in Belgium and Buffalo, presumably getting a taste of waffles and wings, O’Keefe has spent three years raising the money to bring it to off-Broadway in New York City. His former student, the attractive and marriageable 30-ish Angie Graziano (Eileen Goretaya), is the daughter of a successful proprietor of an Italian restaurant, Lou Graziano (Fred Davison), who agrees to put the funding proposal before his business partners Mike Francisco (Mike Petrarca) and Tino De Felice (J.P. McCormick). During a meeting in the private dining room of the restaurant – the sole setting for Breaking Legs – the arrival of the trio’s “good friend” Frankie Salvucci (Tony Annicone), who owes them a considerable sum of money, makes O’Keefe realize with a shock that they are mobsters whose main business is not running a restaurant.
While overtly a silly farce, the script is clever enough to avoid the worst of obvious jokes while developing genuine plot and characters. Blanchette plays the professor as a bit of a one-dimensional neurotic, but Goretaya plays Angie as a cagey woman who carefully navigates Old World values where the men expect her to wait on their table while staying out of “business matters.” Davison’s Lou knows his daughter has him wrapped around her little finger, but to him, backing a play is like betting on the horses or shooting craps: It’s money he can afford to lose in order to have some fun, as long as he gets to roll up to the theater in a limousine and walk on a red carpet. Lou explains to his colleagues that what Angie wants, Angie gets – and what Angie clearly wants is the professor.
While Goretaya and Davison effectively carry the play, Petrarca’s Francisco is hilarious as a seventh-grade dropout whose bombast compensates for his lack of education and culture, and McCormick’s De Felice has superb comic timing, delivering rare single lines and occasionally even single words that bring down the house. Annicone has a minor but significant role as a man even more nervous than the professor, and with good reason.
By far the funniest scene in Breaking Legs comes in the second act when the mobsters are reading through the professor’s play and discussing the realism of its murder, which definitely is not something one would expect to see in The Godfather. Making fun of organized crime is hardly a new idea, and even Marlon Brando parodied his own iconic Vito Corleone character in The Freshman. Mob humor is risky; as I wrote in a serious context about the Bonded Vault robbers, “It’s hard to romanticize these people: luckless buffoons they may have been, but still ruthless, cold-blooded murderers.” Fortunately, Breaking Legs avoids reveling in the seedier business of its characters, keeping them essentially cartoonish.
The play also ridicules the hypocrisy of a playwright who would presume, as a dramatic stunt, to make audiences experience committing a murder, despite the playwright having never actually killed anybody. That’s a legitimate issue, although murder itself has been a topic of drama for a very long time, and the idiom “murder will out” dates at least as far back as the 13th Century, a hundred years before Geoffrey Chaucer quoted it twice.
There’s nothing ambitious about this well-acted farce, but it was telling that the show I attended was sold out. I overheard two older couples near me conversing during intermission, agreeing that they enjoyed the lighter fare at the Arctic Playhouse more than the heavier, intellectually demanding material at a bigger local theater. Given the much higher quality script than I expected and the superb cast, Breaking Legs is an excellent under-$20 entertainment value.
Breaking Legs, by Tom Dulack, directed by Hen Zannini and Fred Davison, at the Arctic Playhouse, 117 Washington St. West Warwick. Through Mar 24. About 2h including 15-minute intermission. Handicap accessible. Free on-street parking. Free cookies and popcorn. Tel: 401-573-3443 Web: thearcticplayhouse.com/shows/breaking-legs Facebook: facebook.com/events/522944384781131 Tickets: app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=9635