The excellent Christian Thom plays the title role of Alfo Idello in Vincent Amelio’s romantic comedy How Alfo Learned to Love (at 59E59 Theaters, directed by Daisy Walker). But the real star of this production may be its casting director, Judy Bowman, who has helped to put together a remarkably gifted ensemble cast that makes a relatively thin, overly familiar story seem richly appointed and, at moments, quite moving.
Alfo is the son of Sal Idello (Robert Funaro), who operates a family bakery in Brooklyn. Sal and his wife Maria (the terrific Joanna Bonaro) fret that the earnest, affable Alfo—a naturally talented pastry chef who is the presumed successor to take over the family business—remains unmarried. But Alfo claims he’s not ready to settle down. He discusses this in the confessional with local priest Father Carmine (Nick DeSimone), an encounter that prompts flashback scenes to Alfo’s teenage years, when he had a crush on an older girl named Gianna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), the best friend of his sister Bellinda (Jenna D’Angelo).
We eventually discover that deceased Grandpa Idello (Armen Garo) has made himself visible to Alfo (and to Alfo alone) and is attempting to work his way out of purgatory by helping his grandson make a true love connection. When the adult Gianna resurfaces in Alfo’s life, the dead man takes on the role of romantic prompter, in comic scenes that are a mix of It’s a Wonderful Life and Cyrano de Bergerac.
In less capable hands, How Alfo Learned to Love would be a sitcom-ish collection of Italian-American clichés—a lightweight, old-fashioned ethnic comedy, mired in opera music and cannoli filling. But these actors (along with director Walker) take the characters seriously—exploring the dreams and disappointments that have made these people who they are.
This is not to say the characters aren’t also funny. Garo, in particular, is a comedic riot. Theatergoers who fancied the grounded-in-reality comedic tone of the 1987 movie Moonstruck will likely admire the performances here.
The cast is also keenly adept at presenting believable versions of the characters both in present day and a couple of decades earlier. Cipoletti does an especially fine job of this: at 16 her Gianna is a cheeky but rather endearing tease; at 39, she’s weary and wise, but still maintains a mischievously sexy sparkle. And Alfo’s pal Tony (the highly amusing Dominick La Ruffa Jr.) transforms before our eyes from a dim, know-it-all teenage lothario to a likable and contented (if still somewhat thick) married man. (He’s wound up as husband to Bellinda.)
The cast’s agility allows one to overlook some deficiencies in the script and production. Amelio’s plotting can be a bit sluggish. (Why do we not learn the details of Grandpa’s purgatory arrangement until the top of Act 2?) And though the rotating panels of Steven C. Kemp’s set are pleasant to look at, I was sometimes confused as to why they were or were not being shifted from scene to scene.
But those are mere quibbles. Everything considered, Alfo is very enjoyable company.