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A new drama explores how one Brooklyn family faces a changing world
Although New York City continues to be a melting pot, there's one element that's becoming increasingly homogenized: its accents. Not too long ago, residents' cultural backgrounds were evident from the moment they spoke. That was certainly the case in Park Slope in 1960, which is the setting for Meghan Kennedy's Napoli, Brooklyn about the Muscolinos, an Italian-American family grappling with the era's rapidly changing mores.
The drama, currently playing at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, had its world premiere earlier this year at New Haven, CT's Long Wharf Theatre. That theatre's artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, helmed both productions and has been with the show since the beginning. "I first read the play over two years ago and I instantly fell in love with it," he says. "The presentation of this mother and her daughters all searching for love and identity moved me. In 1960, the winds of change were gathering -- but these characters don't know it. They can't know how much American culture is going to be transformed over the next decade. Their search for individuation, self-expression, freedom -- these things are all about to explode."
To help ground the characters in the specific time and place, Edelstein brought on veteran dialect coach Stephen Gabis so the cast could master the show's wide array of accents. The immigrant parents, brutish patriarch Nic (Michael Rispoli) and warm matriarch Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan), both retain their Italian inflections. Meanwhile their daughters -- rebellious Vita (Elise Kibler), workhorse Tina (Lilli Kay), and closeted Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale) -- are native English speakers with an Italian-American twist. Outside the Muscolino apartment, Irish and African-American characters' unique voices add to this multicultural community.
"I wanted the accents to be accurate-ish," Edelstein says. "But I wasn't willing to sacrifice clarity for authenticity. I want to make sure the audience still hears every line because Meghan's words are beautiful. The language is exquisite. There's a poetic nature to this show."
Another challenge in convincingly conjuring the world of Napoli, Brooklyn was finding a way to jump back and forth among the script's many locations, including the Muscolino apartment, a butcher shop, a factory, and a convent. "It's theatrical death to stop between each scene," Edelstein says. "It doesn't work. So we worked very hard to create a flow and the sense that all these things were happening at the same time in different places around this one neighborhood."
But perhaps the greatest difficulty in bringing Napoli, Brooklyn to the stage was figuring out how to recreate the historic (though mostly forgotten) disaster that closes Act I, which completely changes the trajectories of all the characters. "It obviously popped out at me when I first read the script," Edelstein says carefully, not wanting to give away too much. "I was terrified about how to do it. I sat down with our technical team to conceptualize it. We discussed it in great detail and the final result is actually very simply done. Often the best ideas are the simple ones -- but they have to be exquisitely executed."
Even though the play is rooted in a particular period and inspired in part by the experiences of the playwright's mother, Edelstein believes the subjects it explores -- sexuality, domestic violence, and especially immigration -- are as relevant in 2017 as they were then. "There were gay boys and girls growing up all around the world during the '60s and throughout history," Edelstein says. "The search for self-expression goes all the way back to the Bible. There is a contemporary feel to the issues in this play, but these themes are as old as time."
Top image: Jordyn DiNatale, Alyssa Bresnahan, and Juliet Brett. Photos by Joan Marcus.