Lame Jokes, Big Laughs

Anthony J. Wilkinson’s riffs on Italian Americans,

gays manage to work

An editor, better actors, tighter direction, im-proved discipline, a non-derivative title, and a re-written script are but a few of the things that you would expect Anthony J. Wilkinson’s chaotic comedy, “My Big Gay Italian Wedding,” to need if it’s to be considered anything other than a bomb.

With that out of the way, did I mention the show is a hoot?

How can a show that’s so poorly written and staged be so much fun?

Blame it on meatballs. “My Big Gay Italian Wedding” traffics in the kind of broadly-drawn, but spot-on and genuinely funny ethnic humor that fueled the popularity of such films as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Mambo Italiano.” In Wilkinson’s play, there are enough Italian jokes about pasta and meatballs and gay priests and more than enough gay gags about oral sex, angry lesbians, and drag queens to keep the public relations offices of both GLAAD and the American Italian Defense Association busy for months.

That’s not a criticism. I have a soft spot for comedies that exploit and celebrate ethnic and sexual stereotypes. Margaret Cho is the perfect example of a comedienne who understands that there’s something hysterically, rewardingly funny about the way a Korean American mom only partly fluent in English speaks to her daughter or the way gay men interact with each other.

Putting a mirror up to racial and sexual stereotypes should reflect a wide-eyed grin. In this case, the mirror reflects a messy, but good-natured comedy of errors.

When Anthony (Wilkinson, a younger version of Mario Cantone) and his boyfriend Andrew (Bill Fischer) decide to get “married,” (technically it’s a commitment ceremony, not a Canadian-style marriage), Anthony and his parents insist on doing it the Italian way—big and flashy.

But before the nuptials can take place, Anthony’s parents demand two things—that the ceremony be performed by a priest and that Andrew’s mother attends. Things fall apart, however, when hunky Father Rosalia (J.C. Alvarez) refuses to marry the couple, and Andrew’s estranged mother declines to attend.

The rest of the two-hour show finds Anthony and Andrew devising ways to make Anthony’s parents happy in order to prevent a wedding day disaster.

It gives nothing away to say that the two men tie the knot at the end. And it comes as no surprise that the road to this particular altar is paved with a drag queen, a jealous ex-boyfriend, dueling dykes, a flaming German party planner, and numerous guido and guidette cousins.

Unfortunately Wilkinson’s script aims squarely for sub-sitcom level comedy, with a message no more profound than “Italians are loud and gays are flaming.” The second act, which includes the wedding ceremony and reception, is slow and labored when it should be manic and crisp.

With the exception of Anthony’s mother, hilariously played by Maria Nazzaro, the characters have as much depth as a thin-crust pizza. As a result the narrative gets buried under layers of uninteresting, ridiculously interwoven storylines. With a cast of 24, that result is a challenge to avoid.

Still, director Peter Rapanaro manages to breathe life into a few of the actors, notably Meredith Cullen as Anthony’s sister and Michael Batelli as the pastor who marries the couple.

Despite many missteps, the show prevails as a comedy because it has the heart of a saint. Homosexuality is a non-issue, the gay kisses are met with nary a gasp (from the characters or the audience), and a same-sex couple is held up as a romantic ideal.

Call it wishful thinking, but I think it’s refreshing to see a show where “family values” means embracing a gay son and his partner. That it’s playing in the same theater as “Naked Boys Singing,” another matter-of-fact gay show, is delightfully coincidental.

With Wilkinson’s family members packing the house on opening night, the rousing applause and standing ovation the crowd delivered at the curtain were hardly the result of objective observation.

But with such a good-natured vibe, it’s easy to imagine any crowd—attention gay vacationers and Italian-American tour groups!—being just as pleased at the end of this family-friendly, gay-positive comedy.

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