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Once Upon Another Time in America

That’s Italian: (l-r) Viellieu-Davis, Healey and Wilner in The Sweepers.

By Kathryn Ceceri

The Sweepers
By John C. Picardi, directed by Frances W. Hill
Capital Repertory Theatre, through Dec. 14

John C. Picardi’s first play, The Sweepers, shows the signs of a master craftsman. In his story of three women from the North End of Boston at the close of World War II, the 40-something writer from Quincy, Mass., deftly moves his audience from tears to laughter and back again. Packed so tightly together in their tenement courtyard that privacy is an undreamed-of luxury—almost an insult to their neighbors—it’s clear from the moment they take the stage that each character must be hiding something from the others. And discovering that secret, real or imagined, drives the play along, taking the audience handily along with it.

On the basis of this play, which is making its local debut at Capital Repertory Theatre after premiering at off-Broadway’s Urban Stages, Picardi won a grant from the National Italian-American Foundation for a 10-play cycle counteracting the kind of gangster stereotypes used to such advantage in The Godfather and The Sopranos. That The Sweepers is rarely preachy says a lot about Picardi’s talent. His mission does leave him with a problem, though: How to create tension when all of the characters are the good guys. He does this by giving each of them flaws that make them less than perfect, though still sympathetic.

There’s a lot of talk in The Sweepers about discrimination against even the second generation of Italian-Americans, the men who have gone off to fight in the Pacific and the women who have taken over for them in the factories at home. But the housewives in The Sweepers haven’t really given up their ties to the Old World. Bella Cichinelli put her only child, Sonny, through law school but is being hounded by her lifelong best friends, Mary DeGrazia and Dotty Larnino, as his wedding to an upwardly mobile “Wellesley girl” approaches. Is Karen really Italian, or one of those Yankee girls who want to “take our sons away and make Americans of them?” Will Sonny cave to his mother’s demands that his bride hang out her wedding sheet, the mark of her “purity,” on the clothesline the next morning for all the neighborhood to see?

Each of the women comes with a label, as best friends often do: Bella (Carole Healey) is the lively one who married an Irishman for love (and lived to regret it); Mary (Lori Wilner), the sharpest, spends her days collecting scrap for the war effort and following the news for signs that her husband and son are coming home; Dotty (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis) is a little scattered. Her shell-shocked husband waits at the VA hospital to come home, while she prays to the statue of the Virgin Mary out back for the safe return of her son. Healy, Wilner and Davis breathe life into their characters, making their constant bickering real while staying just this side of nasty. Perhaps again a reaction to the Italian stereotypes, director Frances W. Hill underplays the humor in the women’s rivalry in the first half of the play, not really giving the audience permission to laugh at their meddling until after the intermission, with a balcony scene that is truly funny. Picardi could have milked the marriage of Sonny (Matthew Montelongo) and Karen (Stephanie Cozart) for comedy, but chooses not to. The Sweepers flirts with farce but is a drama at heart.

With hair, clothes and accessories, costume designer Kevin Brainerd places the characters squarely in the 1940s. Roman Tatarowicz’s set, a dirt yard surrounded by brick-colored screens that give just a peek of the apartments inside, is claustrophobic and edgy, but not terribly evocative of the North End’s homey streets. Still, the biggest obstacle to totally falling in with the time and place is the actors’ accents. They may be Italian, but Boston ain’t Brooklyn; their voices should be the proof that these women grew up side by side. It will be interesting to see how New England audiences take to the production when it travels to Connecticut in February and to the Boston-area Stoneham Theater in April.

Fair-to-Partly- Cloudy Friend

Pre-curmudgeon: Sarah Vowell.

By Kathryn Ceceri

Sarah Vowell
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Nov. 22

Sarah Vowell is not as scary as she looks on her book jackets.

Listen to her Lisa Simpsonesque voice narrating one of her investigations into history and/or popular culture on Public Radio International’s This American Life and you immediately get a picture of a giggly yet precociously shrewd teenager. (In fact, she will be the voice of the daughter in Pixar’s next film, The Incredibles.)

But the face glaring out at the reader from the back cover of 2000’s Take the Cannoli and her most recent volume, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, is all beatnik angst. Chin wedged down into black turtleneck, the stick-straight black hair framing the pale visage Wednesday Addams-style, the eyes burning holes in the observer under the lowered brows, the black-and-white suggestion of blood-red lips: This is the woman who wrote, “I have been called a curmudgeon by Bitch magazine. That is the image I am cultivating.”

The person who walked to the podium at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Saturday night, however, looked completely, well, normal. She was just up on the train from New York City, where she had to leave a marathon tribute to JFK at Cooper Union right before Martha Stewart’s appearance. She was wearing a beige poor-boy sweater, jeans, and Hush Puppies. One toe dug fetchingly into the floor behind her as she read. Not intense, perhaps a bit private, but certainly not menacing, just . . . normal.

Listening to Vowell deliver some of her published essays, as well as some new writing and other offhand remarks, however, was as rewarding as her fans expected. A rabid connoisseur of anything Lincoln, Vowell opened with a piece about an overnight visit to Stockbridge, Mass., to see Chesterwood, the home of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial. Forced to mingle with the other guests at the local bed and breakfast, Vowell described herself as the Mount St. Helens of conversation. One minute she’s sitting there stymied about how to join the small talk and then, boom, “it’s 1980” and she’s gushing uncontrollably about the production of Sondheim’s Assassins that she caught the night before and the wonderful duet between Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley as her tablemates politely edge away.

She also described her new favorite lifestyle magazine, Living Without, a publication so unlike Vogue, Lucky and the rest that she said it might as well be called Loser. Designed for the reader with allergies (Vowell, at age 30, discovered an intolerance for wheat), Living Without offers the moral support she needs to realize she’s not alone, to look at a dinner companion who can’t eat garlic as she sips tea (“the only thing that won’t kill her”) in an Asian restaurant and say to herself, “What a freak!”

Vowell closed with something seasonal—“I mean Thanksgiving, not the Kennedy assassination”—before taking questions from the audience. Along with queries about her mom and dad, where she was going for the holiday, and what she studied in grad school, most were about her favorite book (the last page of The Great Gatsby), music group (Nirvana), or movie (The Godfather). That set off a riff about how “television is way more real life than the movies” and how people who follow a series, as she did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, believe they have more friends than they really do because they’re including their “television friends.”

Which, come to think of it, explains Vowell’s appeal to her fans: She’s their radio friend. Someone you like to imagine you can cuddle up to. Just don’t get too close.

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