Dinner with the Family
If your family argues a lot, you’ll feel right at home
|The Family Shoe Players presents|
|Dinner with the Family|
Review by Joy Campbell
What Chicago-based show would be complete without a Northside/Southside rivalry? Dinner With The Family plays on the contention between two Italian Dons of the ’30s: Don Dino (Brian Plazas), the buffoonish lord of all of two blocks of the Southside, and Sonnyboy (Robert Young), the marginally more competent leader of a Northside gang.
The plot is prosciutto-thin: Don Dino and his entourage – wife Mona (Jenna Manolakes) and henchman Godfrey (Thom Reed) – arrive at the restaurant owned by the high-strung and hyperkinetic Louie (Aaron Dalla Villa) [The script usually calls for Don Dino’s sister, Gina, to be present, but on the night I went, a cast member’s last-minute departure meant that that role was not played; instead some of her lines were taken by trouper Manolakes]. Unfortunately for them, they have to wait, as no seats are available. Meanwhile, Sonny Boy and his cohorts – girlfriend Lisa (Mandie Matos), muscle Vito (Joe Mierk) and stripper Lucia (Melissa Marie Watson) are seated and merrily enjoying their meal and Don Dino’s discomfiture.
Most of the show is taken up with repetitive smack talk between the unrefined groups, with Mona mocking her husband, and the Southsiders whining to Louie about having to wait. There is the inevitable murder and the Feds come in, led by Elliot Mess (John “Sloop” Biederman), written curiously as a G-Man formerly with the Treasury Department, obsessed with tax cheats. The night I attended, the venue was new, and the performance area was kept to a small area at one end of the restaurant, so there was not a lot of room for movement. Except for Louie, most of the cast stays in that one small area. Better use of the entire room, moving among the patrons, would have created a less static result and brought the show closer to the audience. Having half the cast seated most of the time also drains energy from the performance. The stand-out is Aaron Dalla Villa as restaurateur Louie: his training in dance shows as he moves fluidly among the cast and audience, a delightful bundle of Italian hysteria encouraging us to eat and the cast members to simmer down. He is thoroughly enjoyable and charming, and exchanges with him are highlights of the show. In between acts we are entertained by Alberta and Al Martini (Wendy George, Greg Seidler), singing cabaret-style; again, having them move through the audience would have been a nice move. At one point, we were all brought out of our seats to dance, which was fun and brought us into the show, and added to the homegrown charm.
So here’s the thing: the script needs work (I got most of my information on the characters from the playbill rather than the interactions), the dialogue is cliché, and the acting, except for Dalla Villa, is straight from Archetypal Community Theater Inc. Nevertheless, I had fun. Imagine going to a family event and watching relatives put on an impromptu play; that’s what Dinner With The Family feels like. The actors are all incredibly earnest and likeable (when they realized they hadn’t made it clear that the venue was BYOB, one went out and bought a bunch of wine to hand out to patrons). At $50, though, the regular ticket price is steep for this show, even with a meal. If the price was reduced, this could become a sort of dinner-theater cult classic, so unrefined that it’s uniquely memorable.
Dinner with the Family continues at Renaldi’s Pizza, 2827 N. Broadway (map). Tickets are $50 (includes 3-course meal), and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information here. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
John “Sloop” Biederman (Elliot Mess, Roberto), Joe Mierk (Vito), Greg Seidler (Al Martini), Aaron Dalla Villa (Louie), Jenna Manolakes (Mona), Mandie Matos (Lisa), Brian Plazas (Don Dino), Thom Reed (Godfrey), Shag (G-Man), Wendy George Valasso (Alberta Martini)
behind the scenes
John “Sloop” Biederman (producer, director); Joe Mierk, Greg Siedler (co-directors, co-producers); Mandie Matos (press assistant – social media); Thom Reed (press associate); Shag (video-tech assistant, press assistant); Robert Michel Fillicetti-Bartel (playwright, founder, creator, writer, executive director, executive producer)