Do you still hunger, night after night, for pasta with red sauce?
Do you find yourself hankering for a turnpike tour of the construction sites, strip bars and McMansions of northern New Jersey?
Do you continue to bore friends with musings on the meaning of that pointedly ambiguous visit to the diner?
Should you answer any of those questions in the affirmative, you are clearly still suffering from “Sopranos” withdrawal. If constant reimmersion in the DVDs has not cured you, a visit to the Walter Kerr Theater may temporarily salve those cravings for underworld intrigue, Old World sentiment and scary men with silly nicknames. A revival of “A Bronx Tale,” a solo show written by and starring Chazz Palminteri, opened there last night, bringing to Broadway a saga that could be said to have prefigured, in its small way, the Mafia mania reignited by the recently deceased “Sopranos.”
Mr. Palminteri’s stage memoir, a semi-autobiographical account of growing up under the loving protection of an Italian-American crime kingpin, had its debut in Los Angeles in 1989 and was later produced Off Broadway. In 1993 it became a movie directed by Robert De Niro, with a full cast including Mr. De Niro and Joe Pesci. Mr. Palminteri took the role of the big boss, Sonny.
He has subsequently appeared in dozens of Hollywood films, perhaps most memorably in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” for which he received an Oscar nomination. But Mr. Palminteri left a sliver of his heart back in the Bronx, specifically on the corner of Belmont Avenue and 187th Street, the intersection where it all began. That’s where we find him as the lights rise again on “A Bronx Tale,” which retains sufficient heart, spice and humor nearly 20 years after its debut.
Mr. Palminteri is now 55, an age at which you might think it would be hard to muster the energy to play more than a dozen characters in the course of 90 minutes, not to mention the innocence to play a 9-year-old boy caught between the rigid moral vision of an upright, bus-driving father and the canny wisdom of a powerful capo.
But while Mr. Palminteri’s expressive, fleshy face bears more than a few traces of the passing years, he is in trim, energetic shape. As he strides across the stage with a lively gait, nimbly sliding from one role to another, he exudes a moment-to-moment engagement that suggests that this revival is not a lazy ego trip but a rejuvenating act of faith in the complementary powers of acting and storytelling.
The bustle of neighborhood intimacy, and maybe the pinky finger of fate, brings young Cologio Palminteri into the orbit of Sonny, the crime boss who rules over this patch of the Bronx from under a corner lamppost. (The skeletal but effective set is by James Noone.) An altercation over a parking spot ends when Sonny trumps a baseball bat with a volley of gunfire in defense of a friend. From his apartment’s stoop little Cologio witnesses it all. When he is questioned by the police, he chooses to forget who pulled the trigger, earning Sonny’s undying affection and respect.
Sonny is surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of colorful associates, whom Mr. Palminteri clearly delights in describing, and portraying, in all their quirky splendor. Rudy Ice, who owns the bar where Sonny conducts most of his business, fancies himself the Tom Jones of the Bronx. He sets all his small talk to melody. Eddie Mush “was such a loser that he would go to the racetrack, and the teller would give him his tickets already ripped up.” Frankie Coffee Cake earned that sobriquet from a case of bad acne. Jojo the Whale’s nickname probably doesn’t need explaining.
The allure of this lively bunch and their rough-and-tumble world casts a strong spell over Cologio, who is given a more economical handle, C, by his mentor. But when Cologio’s father, Lorenzo, discovers a $1,200 stash in his son’s bedroom, he decides to take a stand against Sonny’s corrupting influence. Defending his surrogate father, Cologio compares the friendly esteem in which Lorenzo is held by his bus patrons to the fawning worship Sonny receives from the whole neighborhood.
“They love you, and they love him,” Cologio insists. “It’s the same thing.”
“It’s not the same,” his father gravely replies. “People don’t love him. They fear him.”
Fortunately for us, Sonny’s glamour proves impervious to Lorenzo’s disapproval. Cologio continues to spend afternoons surreptitiously watching craps in the bar, absorbing the raucous antics of this minor mob.
Still, “A Bronx Tale” loses some of its narrative momentum after a confrontation between Sonny and Lorenzo. The second half of the show, in which our hero discovers the charms of the female sex, and the limits of his father’s uprightness, is more scattered and less compelling, although Mr. Palminteri and his director, the veteran Jerry Zaks, never allow the energy level to flag for long.
The cozy word “tale” could hardly be applied to even a small segment of “The Sopranos,” David Chase’s epic television serial about the strange fusion of bourgeois domesticity, operatic feeling and gruesome violence that constitutes mob life today. (Or constitutes Mr. Chase’s persuasive vision of it, anyway.) But that term is exactly right for Mr. Palminteri’s warmhearted memoir, which is infused with tasty doses of broad comedy. (Mr. Palminteri’s timing and inflections are classic Catskills.)
“A Bronx Tale” may not possess the emotional breadth or sophistication of “The Sopranos.” But, appealingly, it lacks that show’s brutality too. I was always a bit revolted by the clinical realism of the bloodletting in “The Sopranos,” which made me feel soiled for taking a sympathetic interest in the personal foibles of the men perpetrating it. Mr. Palminteri may present his childhood hero through the worshipful eyes of youth, but even the nicest mobsters can benefit from a little fairy-tale airbrushing here and there.
Watching Chazz Palminteri travel back to his childhood stomping ground on the corner of 187th and Belmont Avenue, New York, is not unlike listening in on a bunch of Italians as they wax nostalgic, during a game of bocci or an afternoon at the barbershop, about the old neighborhood and the colorful characters that once populated it. Charming or chilling, the recollections in "A Bronx Tale" are touched by affection, sentimentality and the poignant distance of time. If the solo show is not exactly robust theater, it nonetheless gets by on the writer-actor's strong personal connection to the semi-autobiographical material.
Palminteri plays 18 characters in the show, which was first performed Off Broadway in 1989 and later in Los Angeles before being adapted for the screen in Robert DeNiro's directing debut.
In the almost two decades since, stories of tough neighborhoods full of violence and racism, and of low-level crime bosses and kids who come of age under their wings have proliferated in more or less vivid incarnations on movie screens and cable. But while this familiarity somewhat softens the dramatic edge of Palminteri's engaging snapshot, it's the intervening explosion of multicharacter solo shows that dulls its impact.
Occasionally, someone has struck upon the right ingredients to make a one-person show click on Broadway: "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" had the star's acid-dipped confessional style; Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays" had a shrewd formula of Jews, jazz, baseball and family. More often, however, these intimate yackfests are constrained by their all-tell-no-show form, limitations laid bare by deluxe presentation at a top ticket price nudging $100.
Jerry Zaks doesn't solve the problem of injecting theatricality into the material here. Aside from John Gromada's occasional underscoring and a flash in the final stretch of police sirens and a fiery blaze courtesy of Paul Gallo's lighting, it's easy to forget there's a director on board. But Zaks does have the sense to stay out of Palminteri's way and allow this hard-working, big-hearted performer to lose himself -- and probably a good part of his audience, old geezers in particular -- in his characters and story.
Palminteri's pride in his roots is evident from the start as he strolls onto James Noone's slick set: a Bronx street corner, a stoop, a local bar and an alleyway where Doo Wop crooners Dion and the Belmonts started singing. Talk of Mickey Mantle, JFK and the Cold War places the scene in 1960, but the focus is less on a time than a man: the number one guy in the neighborhood, Sonny.
Channeling 9-year-old alter ego Calogero, later known as C, Palminteri chronicles the divided loyalties and conflicting influences that positioned him through adolescence between his principled bus driver father Lorenzo and Mob heavy Sonny. When he witnesses Sonny shoot down a man on the street but keeps silent with the cops, Calogero earns the paternalistic thug's trust.
Palminteri has an appealing, easy way with an anecdote, a fine ear for the macho rhythms of Italo-American vernacular and a good eye for character detail, even if his constant gesticulating, shifting body language and malleable facial expressions do seem forcefully cranked up to make a talky text more physically dynamic.
One of the actor's best film performances was as a brawny gangster with a brain and a creative streak in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway." A similar duality is harnessed here, negotiating quick switches between glowering menace, wiseguy nonchalance, wide-eyed innocence and the indulgent detachment of a direct-address narrator.
But despite the detail and agility of his performance, Palminteri's writing feels trapped here in a form that prohibits it from fully coming alive. The arc of the play is well shaped, taking C through formative years with twin father figures, his blossoming confidence as a young man in the protective shadow of a local big gun, his first romance, his ideological awakening to social injustice and the bittersweet loss that brings him closer again to his father. Yet despite its origin as a stage piece, the show plays like a distilled short story or screenplay rather than something that functions as a virtuoso stage vehicle for a single performer.
It's mildly entertaining and impressively acted but never quite takes the leap from nostalgia to evocative narrative.