Dinnertime Din

Can equal portions of food and love keep this loud family together?

"What big eyes you have," Red Riding Hood remarked to her suspiciously lupine grandmother. But at the grandmother's house that's the destination of Joe DiPietro's play Over the River and through the Woods, nobody can have eyes bigger than their stomachs. Two sets of Italian-American grandparents lavish food on each other and on their beloved 29-year-old grandson as part of a nonstop feast of famiglia.

It all sparks a case of heartburn in the grandson, Nick, an upwardly mobile marketing executive. Trouble is, he's not mobile enough. His company offers him a promotion and a move to Seattle, but his doting, Hoboken-based grandparents will do anything to keep him nearby. That includes setting him up with an eligible young woman to whom, to his dismay, Nick actually finds himself attracted.

"Over the River and through the Woods" is the song elementary-school music teachers dredge up every Thanksgiving, and it's an apt title for DiPietro's comedy about a family overstuffed with food and emotion, in a timely production at the Invisible Theatre. For these Italian-American elders, nothing in the world is more important than family unity, especially for Frank, whom poverty drove toward a new life in the United States while his parents remained in Italy. Letting Nick go is simply not an option, especially since Nick's parents have already fled to Florida.

DiPietro wrote the book and lyrics for the musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which IT produced six months ago. There, DiPietro's old-fashioned if entertaining vignettes were too often merely a catalog of gender stereotypes. Here, too, DiPietro is trading on stereotypes: the nattering, possessive, good-hearted old guineas and the cocky young Italian-American smooth operator. Yet this time he is able to develop the characters over the course of a full play. These are more satisfying figures, even if they remain stereotypes to the end: Issues are faced, decisions are ultimately made, but nobody really changes.

Still, if you approach this play with more heart than head, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the sheer comic force of the first act and at least slightly moved by the more touching details of the second.

The short first act culminates in a lavish Sunday dinner attended by Nick, the four grandparents and Caitlin, the woman they drop on Nick to anchor him in New York. This is one loud, babbling family, and DiPietro weaves a counterpoint of antic dialog worthy of the finale of Verdi's Falstaff. Lines overlap and intertwine like a pile of spaghetti, and director Gail Fitzhugh and her expert cast shape them into the sort of crescendo with which other comedies aspire to end, rather than begin.

The second act eases off a bit, and considers what happens when each generation tries to make life better for the next: The younger people grow up comfortable and independent, chafed by the ties that had initially been essential to bind the family safely together.

Kevin Lucero Less is a wonderful Nick, with every vocal and physical mannerism of the Italian-American Marketing Prodigy down pat. And it's always obvious that his exasperation with his grandparents is laced with love.

As the grandparents, Ken Roush, Jetti Ames, Manny Ferris and Bobby Joyce Smith are virtuosos of the Italian dinner table, which requires the talking to be even more exuberant than the eating. In the role of Caitlin, the proposed girlfriend, Sybille Bruun makes it clear how Nick could be attracted to her indulgent, good-humored steadiness, while shifting just the right weight onto the character's point of vulnerability.

This is an expert production of an engaging, light (but not featherweight) comedy. As we move into the holidays, it's perfect entertainment, as long as you don't show up at the theater in your red riding hood, expecting a play with big teeth.

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