Screwball comedies work when two mismatched people just happened to have each other’s missing parts. They only really click when they’re together.
John Patrick’s Shanley’s “The Portuguese Kid” is all about a man and woman who are mismatched from the get-go and never click to make a complete couple. In more ways than one, “The Portuguese Kid,” which opened Tuesday at MTC’s City Center Stage 1, isn’t classic screwball. Shanley, who also directs, has attempted to write a warm-hearted farce. But where the heart ought to be there’s nothing but the shifting gears of a playwright pushing characters into outlandish situations that are rarely amusing.
In Shanley’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “Moonstruck,” he could ramp up the romance by cutting to the Manhattan skyline or the Lincoln Center fountain at night, with a Puccini aria blaring on the soundtrack.
When Shanley attempts to get sentimental in “The Portuguese Kid,” he has his actors look up at a cardboard moon on John Lee Beatty’s painted set. Or he requires “Seinfeld” alum Jason Alexander’s character to morph suddenly into a human being, because the guy’s undergoing the “indignity of survival.”
Alexander plays a not very good lawyer named Barry Dragonetti. We know he’s not very good because his mother (Mary Testa) is his secretary. When we meet Barry, he’s in the middle of a big argument with a recently widowed woman, Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott), who’s looking to sell her manse in Providence, Rhode Island. All three have a real history, because Atalanta knows Barry’s secretary-mother well enough to hate her, and the feeling is mutual.
Shanley gets off to a decent start with that first scene, even though Alexander isn’t quite matching Scott’s nervous energy. It doesn’t matter, because Testa soon enters and walks off with the scene, even though she has the fewest lines. Unlike Alexander, who’s relaxed in his comic delivery but isn’t big enough, Testa can do big even when she’s offstage. And unlike Scott, Testa can also be relaxed while being very big.
Unfortunately, the following three scenes focus on Aimee Carrero, who plays Barry’s much younger wife, and Pico Alexander, as Atalanta’s much younger boyfriend. Shanley has directed the younger actors to match Scott’s Energizer Bunny mannerisms tic for nervous tic.
Jason Alexander should be credited for not delivering an equally fraught performance, even when the writing calls for it. Maybe he’s muted because late in “The Portuguese Kid” Barry Dragonetti is required to resemble a human being and show real despair, as well as other human attributes that are spectacularly unfunny.
The play’s title comes from Barry’s misconception that he was mugged long ago by a Portuguese boy, whom he believes has grown up to be Atalanta’s lover even though the young man is actually Italian. Shanley’s other recurring bit concerns whether or not Barry voted for Donald Trump. As limping gags go, it’s difficult to say which exhausts our patience first.