Theater Review: John Patrick Shanley’s Misbegotten The Portuguese Kid

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From The Portuguese Kid. Photo: Richard Termine

Early on in The Portuguese Kid, the unconscionable new play by John Patrick Shanley now onstage at MTC, our Real Greek Housewives of New York City heroine, Atalanta Lagana, whines to her lawyer: “I need an objective. I need an arc. Life is short!”

Too bad Shanley didn’t write those words in his script’s margin as a note for himself. The Portuguese Kid has about as much objective as an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and an arc that’s equal parts lazy predictability and seriously unfunny topicality. As for length? Well, at 100 intermissionless minutes, it’s not nearly short enough.

What has happened to John Patrick Shanley? This is a playwright with a Pulitzer and a Tony (both for Doubt, which will be running in small regional theaters across America until the end of days), not to mention an Oscar for the screenplay of Moonstruck. He’s a director, too — he made the film version of Doubt, as well as the 1990 bomb turned cult classic Joe Versus the Volcano. He’s also in the captain’s chair for The Portuguese Kid. And although it’s hardly surprising that a theater like MTC would enthusiastically premiere the work of a writer with Shanley’s credentials, it’s nothing less than shocking to witness what both institution and artist have put onto the stage.

The Portuguese Kid is several things, none of them good: (1) a play seemingly dashed off in the wake of the election, whose insistent references to the current president feel both irresponsibly out of touch and desperate for intellectual validation; (2) a blatant star vehicle that lacks the wit and rhythm to let its stars shine; and (3) a kind of shameless, New York nouveau riche rip-off of Noël Coward’s Private Lives about two couples, mismatched in age. The older members of each pair share some history and a waspish, Beatrice and Benedick–style repartee. The younger ones are hot and not very smart, and should probably eventually go off together to make hot, not very smart babies, leaving the older ones to sit knowingly side by side, bickering into the sunset and humming “Send in the Clowns.”

Sorry for the spoilers. Except, well, not really. From the minute the lights go up on The Portuguese Kid — finding Sherie Rene Scott as Atalanta and Jason Alexander as her lawyer, Barry Dragonetti, in a stilted tableau designed to let the audience applaud their celebrity status before the action begins — it’s painfully obvious how things are going to go down. Atalanta has recently become a widow for the second time. She wants Barry to sell her gaudy McMansion in Providence. Currently installed in the bedroom of that house is her new boy toy, 29-year-old would-be real-estate hotshot and hardbody, Freddie Imbrossi. (As Freddie, Pico Alexander — no relation to Jason — actually gives one of the more charming performances in the show, simply because he embraces the sheer dumbness of his role: Everyone reads like a rejected walk-on part in The Sopranos, but he seems the most content to drive headlong into that cartoonishness.)

Of course, Freddie used to date Barry’s new spouse, Patty, a Puerto Rican model and Jersey Shore Barbie™, who comes complete with sassy Latina backtalk and removable sarong (Aimee Carrero does her best in a part for which she deserves apologies, starting with Shanley’s). Patty is also 29. Atalanta is 50. Barry is 55. Couples will meet, cocktails will flow, insults will fly, and the requisite reshuffling will occur. Oh yeah, and there’s also Barry’s Croatian harridan of a mother, who serves no real purpose except to shout things like “I can hear you!” and “I hope you die!” at Atalanta from offstage, and provide filler during transitions by reveling witchily to heavy helpings of bouzouki music. The fantastic comic grande dame Mary Testa is utterly wasted in this role, which is clearly meant to be one of those juicy scene-stealing parts — except that Shanley hasn’t written any scenes worth stealing.

Predictability, though, is comparatively low on the list of The Portuguese Kid’s sins. Far more disturbing are the gender dynamics of Shanley’s play, and the self-congratulatory, deeply uncute ways in which the production dabbles in current politics. Let’s start with something simple: In the mismatched couples, the 50-year-old woman who’s got the 29-year-old boyfriend needs to be smokin’. Sherie Rene Scott is taut, blonde, and angular in her décolletage-revealing mourning weeds. But the 55-year-old man who’s dating the Barbie can be, well, George Costanza. (No disrespect to Jason Alexander — he and Scott are both smart, appealing actors trapped inside irretrievably backward material.)

Barry’s manhood is the butt of most of the play’s jokes. The title refers to an incident that occurred when he and Atalanta were kids in which Barry was mugged by — uh-huh — a Portuguese kid. (Let’s not even get started on Barry’s resulting racism, which gives rise to such wince-inducing “jokes” as: “Why can’t you be normal? Why can’t you get weird about Jews or blacks or Arab sheiks or something?”) Atalanta stepped in and scared off the 10-year-old assailant before Barry got seriously hurt. “All that kid took was my money,” Barry snaps at Atalanta in the present. “You committed the real crime… You stole my moment! … You castrated me!”

There it is. Shanley clearly thinks he’s written a play full of “strong” women (though where Atalanta, Patty, and Mrs. Dragonetti are concerned, he’s mistaking “complex” with “loud” in every case), but underneath it all, he remains obsessed with a kind of stale, stereotypical Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus type of psychology. Barry won’t admit to his yen for Atalanta until she gives him back his dick. (The play’s climax involves Barry waving a knife around, screaming about being called “Pussycat,” and ending up with — surprise! — a boner. You know, from all that manly violence.) Though Atalanta is pretty up-front from the beginning about the fact that, God knows why, she carries a torch for Barry (she shouts his name during sex, no matter who she’s sleeping with), Barry can’t reciprocate until he’s reclaimed his balls. What name does he shout in bed? “Clytemnestra.” Get it? Atalanta’s Greek? She’s outlived her husbands? She’s a crazy man-eating Greek psycho-bitch-queen? Are you laughing yet? And yet — amazingly enough — for all her hard-assery, Atalanta yearns for “somebody to put their mark on me.”

And then there’s Trump, the stinking softball that Shanley can’t resist lobbing around the stage at every opportunity. He’s desperate to prove his own good-guy cred, but news flash: Lazily dumping on Trump doesn’t win you any progressive brownie points, especially not when the rest of your play is rife with unexamined sexism.The running gag is that Atalanta — whose now-dead husband voted for that “fucking idiot” — will go berserk if she finds out that Barry did the same. Here’s a shocker: He did. And why? “I didn’t think about it that much,” he barks as Atalanta rages at him. “It seemed like it was the men against the women, and so I voted for the man.” Shanley might think he’s skewering the noxious currents of sexism that ran through our last election. Instead, he’s floating down that same old river in his own highly problematic canoe, waving a flag of smug, lazy liberal thinking as he goes. The Portuguese Kid might be a new play, but its jokes, its archetypes, and its attitudes are old as dirt — and just as due for a thorough sweeping.

The Portuguese Kid is at City Center.

Theater: John Patrick Shanley’s Misbegotten Portuguese Kid