The Muscolinos at the heart of Meghan Kennedy’s memory play “Napoli, Brooklyn” are a big, messy Italian American family in 1960 Brooklyn — the time and place become crucial because of a real-life incident that jolts the characters and the steady hum of storytelling near the end of the first act.
That deus ex machina provides an extra kick to the sauce in Kennedy’s play, which opened Tuesday at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off Broadway Laura Pels Theatre in New York. And it upsets the equilibrium, if not the fundamental nature, of characters who have lapsed into an unsteady pattern of co-existing despite enormous differences.
The heart of the trouble is Nic Muscolino, an Italian American contractor with a fiery temper and little patience for his put-upon wife and three daughters. As played by “Sopranos” alum Michael Rispoli, the senior Muscolino is an old-school brute who remains little more than a period stereotype of bygone masculinity run amok.
Kennedy is better at sketching the play’s many female characters, which she does in short, evocative scenes that give them real nuance. Youngest daughter Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale) is an anachronistically not-so-closeted lesbian yearning to run away to Europe, in part to mimic Nic’s own voyage to America as a stowaway; middle daughter Vita (Elise Kibler) is the tart-tongued stalwart who stood up to Nic — and got a broken nose and trip to a convent reform school for her troubles; and eldest daughter Tina (Lilli Kay) has mastered the art of self-sacrifice, forgoing school to help support the family and kicking herself for allowing Vita to take the beating she feels she deserved instead.
The most interesting character of all may be Nic’s Mario Lanza-loving wife, Ludovica (a commanding Alyssa Bresnahan), a woman with arrogant pride in her cooking skills but who recedes before her overbearing husband time and time again.
Kennedy, a writer on the upcoming NBC series “Rise,” has a flare for dialogue — particularly in a second-act holiday dinner scene that devolves into bitter words and actions. But she has a tendency to telegraph plot points — we don’t need to be told that Nic won’t look Tina’s African American coworker in the fact before seeing that very scene play out on stage. And pivoting her two-act drama around an external real-life event (no spoilers here) carries some unfortunate consequences and rushed denouement in the second act. The dynamics of the Muscalinos could have provided all the fireworks she needed.
There is much to admire here, but “Napoli, Brooklyn” feels like a tasty but overstuffed manicotti. In playwriting as in cooking, less can be more.