Make a date with “How Alfo Learned to Love” — Theater Review
By Justin Sharon, Contributing Writer, Theater News & Reviews, December 21, 2015
How Alfo Learned to Love is currently playing at 59E59 Theaters, a venue famous for introducing American audiences to Edinburgh Festival offerings from the land of often impenetrable accents. They say the difference between the Tri-State and Tartan mafias is that the former make you an offer you can’t refuse, while the latter make you one you can’t understand.
By contrast this play, populated by several Sopranos alums, artfully taps such universally understood themes as family and romance to serve up some solid entertainment. Written by Vincent Amelio, the action initially unfolds on a time-warp set reminiscent of Yorkville’s Glaser’s Bake Shop, a lost world of down-at-heels tiles and vintage radios blaring out opera arias. It tells the story of Alfo Idello (Christian Thom), an incorrigible bachelor in his mid-30’s. Such scenarios have plenty of Company on stage, not least Stephen Sondheim’s Bobby. The clever conceit in this instance is that the titular character, who must marry or forfeit the family bakery, and his already-dead Grandpa (Armen Garo), need each other’s assistance to get out of their jams amid the jelly.
Mr. Garo, in a vintage fedora and suspenders to go with his Uncle Fester visage, does a good job as a ghostly Cyrano de Bergerac. He informs Alfo, apropos of the wooing process: “All you need is balls…and flowers.” Sound enough advice, especially from a longtime flour-pusher presently pushing up daisies. Speaking of which, director Daisy Walker deserves plaudits for kneading everything together nicely. Alfo’s close friend Tony Vallone (Dominick LaRuffa, Jr.) similarly merits an honorable mention in his role as the wise fool. His convoluted “allergy” — make that “analogy” — involving pizza and marriage contains deceptive wisdom. The two exude an easy chemistry, in one scene casually tossing a baseball across the stage while carrying on a conversation. If only The Godfather of Italian-American actors, Al Pacino, could currently deliver his own lines half as effortlessly 14 blocks downtown. Indeed one of the few flubbed notes in the production I attended came from the usher who erroneously informed us that this work, which features one ten-minute break, would be “performed without intermission.”
Actress Lauren Nicole Cipoletti is the dough-eyed girl of this bakery ensemble. In her role as Gianna Gionfrida, employing an intonation eerily similar to the Oscar winner Marisa Tomei’s star-turn in My Cousin Vinny, she claims both Alfo’s heart and the audience’s affection. There are some genuinely compelling moments between the two. He tenderly teaches her how to make cannoli. She stubs out her cigarette, Stanislavski-style, on a blob of Barbasol shaving cream before lovingly attending to his stubble.
Could the production have been leavened further? Certainly Grandpa’s incessant over-the-shoulder advice from The Great Beyond, one particularly amusing three-way scene involving a priest notwithstanding, gradually grew old. And the steady stream of cultural cliches, from Jimmy Hoffa sightings to the strains of “That’s Amore,” occasionally threatened to veer off into Olive Garden ad parody. Ultimately, however, I learned to like How Alfo Learned to Love.