Theater Review by Ethlie Ann Vare
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/15/23 – Don’t worry. No animals were harmed opening night of actress/playwright Dina Morrone’s semi-autobiographical story of an Italian immigrant family in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The titular moose is portrayed by bearded, fullback-sized James Lemire with a self-deprecating smile, a bottle of Molson’s, and a great rack. Of antlers, I mean. Morrone isn’t the only writer here who can abuse an entendre.
Lemire’s opening monolog (“I was nervous,” he said later, “but if you’re not nervous you’re not bringing the energy”) sets the premise: It’s 1999 and we’re in Way Up Bay, where temperatures are cold and family relationships are warm. Except for the Ojibway, it’s a town of immigrants: Irish, Polish, Italian…. the Tappinos left sunny Calabria in the 1960s for a better life in America. The moose left the woods because it’s hunting season. They will invariably collide.
The thing about Way Up Bay is that since it’s below zero half the year — and that’s before figuring in the wind chill factor — people tend to huddle at home and not mix it up much. They stay indoors, they stay with their herd. “Times-a no change,” says Nonna, played by veteran actress and teacher Laura James, hilarious as every short immigrant grandma in orthopedic shoes you’ve ever met.
The Tappinos still speak Italian, make their own grappa, and consider a relationship with a Canadian to be a mixed marriage. It’s a big, loud, noisy, bickering, ultimately loving family which playwright Morrone unabashedly based on her own clan. And if it ever seems culturally stereotyped or the accents ever seem overdone, all you have to do is listen to the laughter of recognition (and the accents!) of the first three rows to realize that they got it exactly right.
The inciting incident of this fast-paced screwball-style comedy is the return home of daughter Gina from her marketing job in the big city. Her father Guiseppe (Stuart H. Howard) doesn’t understand what this market she works at sells. Or why a girl would want a career. Or why his son Joseph (Nick McDow-Musleh) reads so many books and wants to be a (gasp) nurse.
Why his son Bruno (Rick Simone-Friedland) sits on the couch and watches the Weather Channel all day – that, he understands. That his girlfriend (Meg Lin) is Ojibway… you’ve lost him again.
Nonna and Nonno (Richard D. Reich) have fought every day of their 55-year marriage. Guiseppe and his wife Maria (Constance Mellors) are on track to equal their record. Daughter Carmela (Deanna Gandy) so overwhelms her husband Darryl (Cecil Jennings) that he has developed a stutter. But it’s okay; he’s not Italian so what he says he doesn’t count.
It’s a big family and a big cast that keeps the action and dialog moving at a brisk pace. And don’t get the impression that these people are mean or unlikeable. Morrone sees their foibles and loves them anyway. The characters are specific and recognizable, and the jokes come loud and fast. The packed opening night audience was delighted and laughed at punchlines I didn’t even pick up on, because I’m not Italian.
The 2-hour (including intermission) plays only bogs down late in the second act, when Morrone tries to wedge in a thesis statement about how we are all displaced people one way or another. Selling this as an every-immigrant story dilutes its appeal, which is as a very specific portrait of a very specific family. You can tell the story of the Tappinos without implying that this is the story of all immigrants everywhere. It’s fine just being funny; it doesn’t have to be a Very Special Episode where we Learn An Important Lesson.
But heck, how can you not love a play that uses South Park’s immortal “Blame Canada” to raise the curtain?
MOOSE ON THE LOOSE
Written by Dina Morrone
Directed by Peter Flood
Produced by Dina Morrone and Benjamin Scuglia
Starring James Lemire, Stuart H. Howard, Constance Mellors, Richard Reich, Laura James, Erica Piccininni, Rick Simone, Deanna Candy, Nick McDow-Musleh, Cecil Jennings, Darby Winn, Meg Lin and Ari Wojiech.
3333 Cahuenga Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90068
Through May 21
Special performances: Q&A following show April 16 and 30. ASL interpreter on April 21. Sensory Friendly Relaxed Performance on April 23.