Third time's a charm for Epicenter

I suspect that in the days of the caveman, people used to sit around the campfire entertaining one another with stories about the foibles of love. Not much has changed over the millennia, as storytellers in every culture have spun countless tales of love and the pursuit of love – and for good reason: People in love do crazy, weird, or wonderful things.
If you don't believe me, just ask Aldo Scalicki, the storyteller of John Patrick Shanley's "Italian American Reconciliation," who sums it up quite succinctly in the comedy's second act: "We're all crazy." And he's pretty much right. Except in the finely executed production courtesy of Epicenter Theatre Group, they're also thoroughly identifiable and likable, no matter which culture or ethnic group you belong to.
Set in New York's Little Italy, Aldo (Marco Zaccagnini) and Huey Maximilian Bonfigliano (Michael Lopetrone) have been best friends since childhood. Aldo is what was once known as "a confirmed bachelor," while Huey – divorced three years earlier – has been dating Teresa (Lauren Knox), an adorable waitress who works at Pop's Soup House. Huey has been MIA in recent days, so Aldo goes to his house and finds his friend sitting at his desk, oddly dressed, listening to classical music on a music box and writing bad poetry. The problem, it seems, is this: Huey has come to believe his manhood was stolen three years ago by his ex-wife, Janice (Erin Edgerton), and he can't move forward with his life until he woos Janice and gets her back. And he needs Aldo's help with the conquest.
This scares the bejesus out of Aldo, who has been intimidated by the universally disliked Janice since they were children – and rightfully so: Her villainy includes shooting Huey's dog and taking a shot at her then-husband with a zip gun. But best friends do what a best friend has to do – and he agrees to help Huey with his crazy plan – although with a twist he believes is for Huey's own good.
As you can imagine, even the best-laid plans don't always work out the way they're supposed to.
Shanley – best known for the movie "Moonstruck" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Doubt" – once again crafts a script filled with characters you can identify with, relate to, and root for. Subtitled "A Comic Folktale," "Italian American Reconciliation" is just that: a delightful lesson about relationships, taught by Aldo, who explains to the audience (in the play's unusual, stand-up-like opening) that he's there "to teach you something." We're his class, he says, and he keeps us thoroughly engaged as he steps into the story and weaves his tale.
That wouldn't happen, however, if not for the excellent direction of Karen Sheridan. For Epicenter's initial two productions, fellow critic John Quinn and I pointed out conceptual and directorial problems that marred the otherwise hard work this young and energetic company had put into their shows. But tough lessons have been learned, and the result is a slick and heartwarming production that had me in the palm of its hand right from the very beginning.
What struck me most on opening night was the attention Sheridan paid to the emotional beats of the script. Each was carefully dissected to discern the truth behind each character's thoughts and motivations, and as a result, each actor's portrayal was as honest and as complete as it could possibly be.
Also noticeable was Sheridan's fine integration of sound into the story – from the perfectly timed bell that rings every time someone enters the diner to the music that underscores the story. And the lights by Kerro Knox 3 offer the perfect emotional touch to the play's pivotal moments.
But what stood out most of all were the accomplishments of the actors, each of whom sports a perfect and never-wavering Italian accent, and who paint with their words and actions a vivid portrait of men and women who, like all of us, are struggling to overcome their fears and flaws while striving to make connections and bonds with those around them. Most of all, however, all of them are totally believable from start to finish.
Zaccagnini sets the tone at the beginning of the show. Aldo works the audience with a sense of charm, self confidence and a bit of cockiness, all of which hide the fact he's really a mama's boy afraid of commitment.
Edgerton allows us to briefly see through Janice's tough-as-steel exterior, while Knox gives us the perfect girlfriend: beautiful and understanding – but only up to a certain point.
There's a fifth character in the play, Aunt May, who serves as its "raisonneur" or voice of the playwright. It's a delicious role, and played deliciously by Elizabeth DeWulf. (Her costume, like all the others by Christa Koerner, fits the character perfectly.)
The heart of the production, though, is Lopetrone. Sweet, passionate, meek and a bit crazy, Huey rides a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the production, and Lopetrone jumps into the role and finds every nuance he can to bring it to life. Watch how he relates to – and plays off of – each of the other actors: It's masterful – and by the end of the first act, he'll have you glued to your seat in anticipation of the second.
That was my reaction at intermission – and the rest of the performance delivered the promise of the first. All in all, Epicenter has shaken off the shackles of inexperience and proven it has what it takes to become a force to be reckoned with in Metro Detroit's professional theater community. I suspect it will be a fun and fascinating journey.

'Italian American Reconciliation'
Epicenter Theatre Group at Varner Hall Studio Theatre, Oakland University, Rochester. Thursday-Saturday through June 9, plus Sunday, June 10. 115 minutes. $10-15. 586-246-7546.


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