“I need an objective. I need an arc. Life is short. I don’t want bitterness to eat me alive.”
While this line is spoken by the lovelorn Atalanta early on in The Portuguese Kid, MTC's new John Patrick Shanley work recently extended by popular demand through December 10th at New York City Center Stage I, it could easily apply to any one of the four main characters at any point in the play. After all, each spends the better part of its 90-minute duration scrambling to find a meaning in life, an inkling of existential worth and fulfillment, so as not to end up embodying the person Atalanta describes. Trouble is, as these stories often go, they seem to be looking for it in the wrong places. No doubt an amusing conundrum to watch a singular character overcome, but with all four of them in the midst of it all concurrently? Secrets are revealed, tensions run high, lines are crossed, food is flung and chaos inevitably ensues. And therein lies the comedy gold.
The plot follows second-rate Rhode Island lawyer Barry Dragonetti (a sensational Jason Alexander) as he attempts to settle an estate deal for his childhood friend, the high-strung and perpetually widowed Atalanta Lagana (a spot-on Sherie Rene Scott). Plagued by the titular “Portuguese kid” (a long-drawn-out metaphor stemming from an incident in his youth; Barry now equates any glimmer of a disaster with the same intensity of the events on that fateful day), he’s simultaneously on a decades-long mission to regain his “moment,” which becomes increasingly more difficult as things with Atalanta come to a head.
It’s clear the two are sexually frustrated, each having dealt with their fair share of romantic loss, and it’s glaringly evident that they’re pining for one another, a detail brilliantly punctuated in a series of dramatic silences that offset the barbs and jabs slung at one another in a scene. But then (as is common in established relationships) comes the ever-impending power struggle, and the two have no mercy, consistently vying for the upper hand throughout, unapologetically at each other’s throats from first lights up through to final curtain. Throw in the fact that, despite their infatuation for each other, they’re both currently trapped in loveless relationships with partners well below their age brackets — a desperate attempt to solidify their worth in the world — an element further complicated by the reveal that both their beaus have previously been involved with each other, and you have, as various ads for the show have so proudly declared, “a recipe for comic combustion.”
And indeed, that’s what you get, at least on some level. With all the elements of classic farcical comedy, you can bet it delivers in full on that front (and really, what else would you expect with George Costanza at the helm?). But, in earnest, what really makes the piece resonate is the way it sucker-punches with its poignant, dramatic moments interspersed among the buffoonery, especially in Barry’s case. “You stole my moment,” he says to Atalanta in the early moments of the first scene. It’s that obsession with not having it work out then that keeps him from redeeming it all these years later. He’s so tied up in the way everything should be, that when it doesn’t go right, he assumes he’s unable to fix it — and therefore, broods over it instead.
This way of thinking translates over into Barry's relationships as well. It’s evident he’s not happy as he could be, but with Patty, at least he’s got something — at least he’s settled — so he’s happy. But he’s unwilling to step up and speak for himself so he’s trapped, in a way, with Patty, while consistently manipulated by Atalanta, and afraid to do something about both. The fact that his mother pops in and out of scenes with both women (let alone that she lives and works with him, period) signifies the hold that she, too, has over him — no woman will ever care for him like his mama will — emphasizing his continual inability to break free from her clutches and stand on his two feet.
Atalanta, meanwhile, unlucky in love with men her own age, settles for someone younger, but knows in the back of her mind that something’s not quite right, talking about “having the moon” while planted firmly on the ground, and stating “Don’t you look at the stars and wonder why?”
Meanwhile, the younger two, fresh-faced and frisky, are perhaps too naive to see they’re being strung along by the adults, pawns in their game, thinking this where they need to be at this point in life, and too green to know the difference.
Quite a twisted scenario, yes, but no matter — it’s easy to follow with this team of top-notch talent at the helm. Fresh off the fifth season of popular Freeform comedy, Young and Hungry, Aimee Carrero gives a particularly standout performance as Barry’s buxom bride, Patty, expertly shifting between English and Spanish to communicate Patty’s own longing for stability — and the growing uncertainty that Barry may not give that to her. On the other side of that coin, her partner, Jason Alexander, is, of course, at the top of his game throughout, the curmudgeonly Barry Dragonetti emanating hints of his beloved Seinfeld character, but not so cut-and-dry that he’s locked in and inhibited from creating elements of a new persona.
Sherie Rene Scott is in deliciously full form as the shrewd, manipulative Atalanta, whom Shanley cleverly named after a Greek goddess who constantly ran from commitment. In deviously wrapping Barry around her finger throughout the course of the show, so too does she wrap us around her finger, roping us in from the start and keeping us captivated until the very end.
Mary Testa and Pico Alexander round out the cast; the latter as Atalanta’s oafish boytoy, the stark contrast to Barry who isn’t nearly half as poetic, though his ode to “Atalanta’s ass” is sure to make you giggle, and the former as feisty Fausta, Barry’s aforementioned mother, looming over the action, sassy commentary and razor-sharp tongue bested only by her unquestionable knack for Greek dancing. (See? It’s not all serious!!)
So, in short, while it may not dramatically change the face of theatre, with its quick wit, sharp dialogue, slapstick elements, and overall comedic chaos, Shanley’s feel-good romp is undoubtedly an enjoyable night out, presenting a poignant commentary on how we treat our world, how we treat each other, and ultimately, how we treat ourselves. And maybe that’s what we need right now: a little fluff. Maybe we could all, as Barry consistently remarks throughout the show, “do [ourselves] a favor and enjoy the little things.” There’s no doubt it would do us all good. So long as we keep an eye out for our personal demons… our own individual Portuguese kids.