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NEW YORK A Second Stage Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Albert Innaurato. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Janet Kalas; dialect coach, Sarah Felder; production stage managers, James FitzSimmons, Then Bradshaw Gillies. Opened June 16, 1999. Reviewed June 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
Francis Geminiani            Brian Mysliwy
Bunny Weinberger                Linda Hart
Randy Hastings              Thomas Sadoski
Judith Hastings             Sarah Rafferty
Herschel Weinberger       Michael Kendrick
Fran Geminiani               Joseph Siravo
Lucille Pompi                   Julie Boyd

Albert Innaurato's 1977 play "Gemini" is redolent of more than one vanished era. It dates from a time when Broadway plays and not just megamusicals could lay claim to a seemingly limitless audience, before popular comedy became the exclusive province of films and TV. The play logged an astonishing 1,788 performances after transferring from Off Broadway (where another Innaurato play, "The Transfiguration of Beuno Blimpie," had opened to acclaim just weeks prior to "Gemini's" Broadway bow). In its subject matter, too, "Gemini" brings back a distinct period, when the term "homosexual panic" still had currency, Anita Bryant was making headlines and honest depictions of same-sex affection were still rare and daring in popular culture.

Needless to say, times have changed, and "Gemini," in its first major Gotham revival at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theater, has not survived the years unscathed. Despite a pungent and respectful production by Mark Brokaw, the play unquestionably shows its age -- two decades of perspective have not turned this spirited mixture of sentiment and sitcom into anything more momentous (and Brokaw wisely doesn't inflict any stylistic arguments to prove the contrary).

Its central story, a comic exploration of a young man coming to terms with his possible homosexuality, was remarkable for its lightheartedness and candor in its time. But it can only strike us as sweetly, simplistically retrograde now-- this wouldn't raise too many eyebrows as an after-school special today. (Its original ending, with the protagonist apparently returning to the safe shores of heterosexuality after dipping a toe in more radical waters, has appropriately been somewhat elided here.)

As a boisterous backdrop to the now-pallid romantic entanglements in the foreground, Innaurato served up a thick slice of blue-collar Italian-American life in South Philly, an ethnic circus that fairly drips with red sauce. And though this, too, has lost some of its robust vigor after two decades-plus of similar characters on TV comedies, it largely retains its outrageous comic bite thanks to Brokaw's direction of a mostly superb cast.

On the eve of his 21st birthday, Francis Geminiani (Brian Mysliwy) receives a surprise visit from two Harvard chums, Judith Hastings (Sarah Rafferty) and her brother Randy (Thomas Sadoski). Francis, a Callas-loving fish out of water in his father's humble house, attempts to send them packing out of shame at his origins -- claiming his Mafia father "offs WASPs." ("I thought wops loved company," says the perplexed Randy, a laugh line that wouldn't make it past the dramaturg in this P.C. age.)

But dad Fran (Joseph Siravo) forestalls their exit with a warm welcome, and Judith and Randy are soon drawn into the whirlwind of Geminiani and Co., a ragtag bunch that includes Fran's prim girlfriend Lucille (Julie Boyd), the termagant-next-door Bunny Weinberger (Linda Hart) and Bunny's misfit adolescent son, the transportation-obsessed asthmatic Herschel (Michael Kendrick), who takes an instant shine to Randy. Randy, as it happens, is also the unnamed object of Francis' latent gay affections, as Judith discovers to her perkily sarcastic dismay.

Innaurato has also pursued a journalistic career as a distinguished opera specialist, and his comedy is grandly scaled. Jokes are broad, with due attention paid to ethnic stereotypes, sex and other bodily functions. But there's nothing dishonest in the play, nothing that doesn't feel organic to the world Innaurato is observing, however floridly comic its theatrical expression. The characters are exaggerated types, but their status as outsiders plagued by feelings of inferiority -- manifested in physical afflictions from obesity to rashes to Bunny's "hepatitis-yellow" bleached hair -- lends them a humanity that no amount of coarse joking can obscure.

Brokaw honors that truthfulness even as he gives his actors full rein to exploit Innaurato's outsized creations. The chirpy blondness of Rafferty and Sadoski's stereotypical WASPs is the fun house flip-side of the effusive Italian earthiness of Siravo's Fran (a part originally played by Danny Aiello). Boyd's performance as the strenuously proper Lucille is exquisite, her careful elocution a vain attempt to slap a veneer of gentility over South Philly instincts. Mysliwy does not seem particularly Italianate (the name's a giveaway), and he's clearly been padded to achieve the required pudginess, but he does his best to enter the raucous spirit of the proceedings.

Intriguingly, the coarsest of the bunch is the most deeply and durably drawn character: the big-mouthed, big-hearted Bunny, played with ferocious devotion by Hart in a bravura performance that deftly moves the emotional focus of the play from the mixed-up loves of Francis to the mixed-up life of Bunny.

Hart has a pinched pixie face that can easily register the several-octave emotional range of this glorious monster, who can call her son a "four-eyed fat-assed creep" in a manner both abusive and loving. Bunny's wild joy at being acquitted of assault is the comic peak of the production, as she celebrates her victory with a lewd aria of exultation -- flaunting her breasts as if they were trophies. In her irrational delight can be glimpsed the surprised, almost terrified joy of a woman who has been so conditioned to expect defeat that even the most dubious triumph seems like a sweet taste of heaven. "I felt 20 again," she marvels, and Hart's audacious, extravagantly heartfelt performance gives full due to Bunny's vulgar grandeur.

Later, Bunny makes explicit the anguish hidden beneath her aggressive bravado as she slowly climbs the telephone pole abutting the Geminiani backyard, beer bottle in hand, half-heartedly intent on ending a life that she sums up with the same brutality she dishes out to her hapless son: "I turned ugly, I got no money, I ain't got no prospects ..." It's a moment both achingly funny and achingly sad, and entirely human.

That mixture is often masked by the play's easy laughs, but Hart's Bunny embodies in bolder colors the hurt that all the play's characters share (even--a little-- the WASPs): the pain of being abandoned, the anguish of being a misfit, the torture of being unloved. This theme is explored more explicitly in "Benno Blimpie," a far darker but more artful work, and it provides the core of real humanity that still glows brightly in "Gemini" even as its more perishable pleasures may fade.3
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jun 21, 1999
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