All Things Entertaining and Cultural
I start with a story from my own experience. In London, in 1979, I frequently ate lunch, canneloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach, at a bygone pizza chain. This was a decade before London quit being a gastronomic horror, and the only safe way to get a somewhat edible meal was to go to ethnic restaurants where no one in the kitchen spoke English.
While I was waiting for my canneloni and salad, a couple walked in and sat at the table next to mine. They spoke an odd language, one I didn’t recognize but called Berber– It was not Berber — because it sounded like a series of clipped chirps that went “burrip burr burrip burr brrrip.” The waitress, who sported a thick Cockney accent, came over and said, “Can I help you?” All she received was a barrage of burrips and brrrips. “Do you think you can point?” she asked while using her finger to indicate the photographs of some popular dishes, including the canneloni. The response was again, “Burrip brrrip.” “Right!,” the Cockney said with determination as she grabbed both menus from the top and yanked them out of the Berbers’ hands, “If you can’t speak English, you can’t eat here.” She walked away, and the stunned couple left the restaurant.
I would have offered to help, but frankly, the language the couple was speaking was irritating with its high-pitched birdlike syllables. Besides, the waitress had made all decisions final. She marched off to get my stracciatella, and I returned to my book and what I, with my Philadelphia accent, referred to as “taln (Italian) bread.” Later that day, I told the story to an American actress appearing in the West End, and said, “Can you imagine something like that happening in the United States? The uproar would be deafening.” She said something soothing like, “Lovely, darling, let’s have a drink.”
I bring up this particular British adventure because several years ago, the late Joey Vento, owner of Philadelphia’s famous Geno’s steaks, hung a sign in the windows by his ordering bays saying, “We speak English” and other words to the effect that for the sake of efficiency, it would be best if you ordered in the language of the people taking the order. The Cockney would have been in her glory.
Not, however, the politically correct who, instead of laughing at Joey’s sign or taking their business someplace else in protest — Near 9th & Passyunk, it’s not hard to find a comparable steak. — took umbrage and action.
Could the sign be taken as offensive? Of course. Should it cause the uproar I predicted, to the point of Joey having to appear before a municipal Human Rights panel? No. That’s just one more example of the 21st century penchant for turning any quirk of personality into a calamity or, worse, creating an issue when what we need to do is learn to shrug or at least hold our indignant outrage for weightier matters, such as the Russians occupying Donetsk asking Jewish residents to register.
The Geno’s sign became an ongoing controversy in Philadelphia and sparked some national interest.
Now, as you knew I would do eventually, I will address “Down Past Passyunk,” the world premiere play by A. Zell Williams, produced at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theatre by InterAct Theatre Company.
Williams uses a sign similar to Joey’s sign as a departure point for a comedy with serious overtones about immigration, change, and acceptance. “Down Past Passyunk” takes the Geno’s case into wider territory and deals with thornier issues as it conducts a debate about what a neighborhood is, how what happens where one lives may affect America in general, and the repercussions that may occur if any resident’s or group’s point of view is acted upon to the extreme. Williams also touches on the rights of an owner to run his business as he or she sees fit and the reaction such individuality might garner from the public at-large. Romance and fidelity of affection also figure into “Down Past Passyunk.”
Williams’s mix makes for some interesting theater, although the playwright has a tendency to be tad sentimental and melodramatic in ways that make “Down Past Passyunk” seem overloaded and confused about which of two dramatic tracks it deems to be the more important, adapting to new circumstances or a crime investigation. The play remains divertingly watchable throughout Matt Pfeiffer’s production for InterAct, and at its best, is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Williams loses some ground when scenes reflecting the ill-starred relationship between two younger characters , though moving, seem to be from another play. “Down Past Passyunk” is the strongest when it dwells on the emotional and outspoken proprietor of a restaurant which, unlike Geno’s, is not primarily outdoors and does not take up an entire square block of the city, occupying instead a small and neat corner storefront in which making, delivering, and selling steak sandwiches is the sole business.
Grillo’s Italian Steaks is in its 56th year of operation when the South Philadelphia neighborhood in which it thrives has an influx of Latino and Asian residents who bring aspects of their culture and traditions to an area that was practically all Italian with a smattering of Jews and a stream of visitors from other zip codes who breeze in to get a good old-fashioned Philly steak.
Nicky Grillo, the second generation owner of the sandwich shop, has his lunch hour line delayed by a Latino, a Mexican, who could not express what he wanted in English and refused to relinquish his place in line until Nicky could decipher his order. Grillo’s, like Geno’s and unlike the London restaurant in my story, wasn’t refusing to serve anyone. It just asked people to be ready to order plainly so it could keep its lines moving. (Philadelphians, going to one of the famous steak sandwich joints, know to state their cheese and condiment preferences quickly at the time they order.)
Nicky’s bout with the Latino, Chris Nuñez, turns into a shouting match during which Nicky allegedly curses Nuñez and uses ethnic slurs. Nicky’s temper and Chris’s stubbornness do not combine for a pretty picture.
Word about the Grillo-Nuñez contretemps spreads through South Philly and then to the media. An “Action News” reporter wants to speak to Nicky, who since the Nuñez incident has placed a sign on his store’s counter saying English is the language of choice at Grillo’s. All the sign suggests is people in an American city should be ready to use the language Americans speak.
Williams delves into more than the sign. He is interested in deeper-seated reasons behind it, the things that really occupy Nicky’s thoughts and trigger his ire.
Nicky isn’t ticked off solely because Chris Nuñez held up his line and wouldn’t leave until he was insulted away. He is disturbed by immigration in general. Although he is a third-generation American, he points out differences between his grandfather working to assimilate vs. 21st century immigrants who want their new home to cater to them. Speaking English is just one issue, incendiary but relatively small.
A much larger consideration is the change Nicky sees in his community where homogeneity is being replaced by diversity, and entrepreneurs of Latino descent are adding some panache and variety he considers crass and unnecessary to the traditional steak sandwich and the surroundings in which it is bought and eaten.
Williams’s Nicky Grillo cannot cope with change, and he resents competition from vendors who are offering new recipes and more upscale variations of the steak sandwich his family made into a Philadelphia tourist attraction. His enmity goes beyond his verbal scrap with Nuñez. He sees the Latino residents of his neighborhood as interlopers who want to turn the America he knows into the Mexico they left, even when he’s told the Latinos to whom he refers are Colombian and Dominican.
Nicky doesn’t like competition, cultural or commercial, and he doesn’t like being told he has to conform to politically correct behavior or feigned tolerance. Why, he wonders, isn’t the newly arrived immigrant asked to conform, at least to the extent of speaking the tongue of the land in which he or she has settled? He is particularly disturbed about a sandwich shop directly across the street from his, Guerrero’s Phila-Mex, which offers steak sandwich featuring three kinds of meat and toppings and sauces that are beyond Nicky’s ken.
After the Nuñez incident and the sign earn him notoriety and cause organized furor, Nicky becomes paranoid. He believes the Latino community is purposely looking to attack him and that the politically correct, not exactly keen on hearing the logic from all sides when they on their horse to protect the alleged downtrodden, are planning to boycott him or limit his business. When scads of cups and wrappers with Guerrero logos litter his property, he suspects Guerrero and his customers trashed his side of the street as an act of intended retaliation, even when people mention the wind or a temporarily tipped rubbish can. He considers anyone he sees going into Guerrero’s as a traitor, especially if that person is one of his regular customers. Anger builds in Nicky. The newcomers to South Philly are now his enemies, and Latinos are a specific target of his wrath.
Beyond placing the rather benign sign, Nicky does not act publicly on his emotions. He may squabble with his daughter, Sophia, a bit more, he may have a heated discussion with his landlord, Vince, who is also the Guerrero’s landlord, and he may berate the beat cop, Stanley, who once worked for him and who once dated Sophia, but he does nothing overt to any customer.
Nicky’s problem is being plain-spoken. He says what is on his mind, and he behaves consistent with his attitudes and feelings. He does like Guerrero or his breed, so he will not be friendly when Guerrero visits him with a peace offering. Nicky’s world is going to ruin in a handbasket, and he will rage and maintain what he regards as the proper standards to prevent that from happening.
To Williams’s credit, he endows Nicky with a lot of humanity. As played with great authenticity by William Zielinski, Nicky is not a bad or unlikeable guy. He can crack a joke. He can show he has generosity and heart. And he can express love and loyalty.
Nicky is an average guy overwhelmed with something he did not expect, a new ethnic composition for his neighborhood and a more complex and more chi-chi business environment. Even when he rails against the incoming South Philadelphians, Nicky can make sound and sincere points.
He touches a nerve because of that. When his interview runs on “Action News,” he gains fans. Inadvertently, he may have turned his corner of Philly into a battle zone in which his store stands for tradition and established ways of eating and doing business and Guerrero’s shop symbolizes the imposition of something otherworldly and unwanted. Thoughts of Guerrero’s also sets Nicky off on a tirade against immigrants and immigration violations.
In the dialogue provided by Williams, Nicky represents a point of view, and he represents it honestly. He may not be the most eloquent speaker, and he may see more devils than geography can hold in the changing South Philadelphia landscape, but neither Williams nor Zielinski make him into a fool or buffoon.
Williams does not even portray Nicky as a bigot. In many scenes, Nicky’s sincerity, and Zielinski’s realistic playing, earn him sympathy. Nicky articulates what he wants and what he feels so well, he becomes the spokesman for a point of view, and while he begs issues, spouts clichés, and categorizes people stereotypically, he does so no more often than exponents from the opposite side and can, amid his diatribe, pose the salient questions the politically correct judge as rude to bring up, let alone to consider.
Williams has thought out all sides of immigration and the change it engenders. You see those sides in Nicky and in Ignacio Guerrero, played with easy dignity by Bobby Plasencia.
“Down Past Passyunk’s” problems begin when Williams adds crime and romance to his story. Although both the murder that takes place and the accusations that follow it relate to “Passyunk’s” plot, they get in the way of the primary action and don’t really enhance a look at one man’s confrontation with change. The extra plot lines add to tension and heighten both the suspense and sense of consequence in Williams’s play, but they interrupt and tear the basic fabric of the piece by introducing passages that look as if they were tacked on for surprise and effect rather than to advance the plot or make Nicky’s dramatic journey more inevitable or poignant.
While “Down Past Passyunk” has a lot to recommend it and keeps you entertained, it uses devices instead of craft to negotiate plot twists or propel forward movement. Nicky’s story doesn’t seem to be enough. Once the tension is established in the neighborhood containing Grillo’s Steaks, and once the roiling cauldron heated by that tension boils over and causes mayhem, Williams seems to lose interest in the plots and themes he’s been building all along. Instead of a show about change and getting along with one another, he moves to melodrama and makes love, loyalty, guilt, and commitment his aims. “Down Past Passyunk” doesn’t exactly work at cross purposes, but it swiftly changes tone and focus. The second act doesn’t continue Nicky’s struggle in any remarkable way. It seems to dismiss most of what happens in the first act to concentrate on a heartbreaking event that happens in that act’s last sequence.
To suggest some tieback, Guerrero and the “Action News” crew reappear in the second act, but their scenes seem perfunctory and geared to present information in a presentational rather than theatrical fashion. Williams cheats by letting a reporter elicit what Nicky is feeling instead of letting it come out in an honest confrontation between Nicky, Guerrero, and the oft heard about but never seen Nuñez.
Nicky does have a big confrontation in the second act, but it’s misplaced. The passage I refer to is interesting, but it seems tacked on more for the sake of having something new and juicy to consider rather than to shed real or important light on anything that happened. Williams loses control of “Down Past Passyunk” in this scene. I felt like I was watching a one-act rather than an integral part of the play at hand. To Pfeiffer’s credit, this sequence is staged well and with intensity, but the inclusion/intrusion of it makes no dramatic or literary sense. It’s as if Williams surrendered his original intention with a first-act shock. “Down Past Passyunk” retains its entertainment value but gives up its dramatic momentum at that point, as if Williams ran out of ideas for where to take Nicky next or was shying away from the controversy he was getting to the heart of.
No matter the framework in which Williams puts his lead character, William Zielinski plays him with great clarity and naturalism.
Zielinski finds both the anger and humor in Nicky. He can declaim like a zealot in rage, quietly mourn when appropriate, let loose with a Lear-like outburst, and mellow into a man who has fought his battle and is content to take the world as it comes.
Williams gives Nicky a lot to do, and Zielinski negotiates every change and embodies every nuance an actor playing Nicky must portray.
From his Philadelphia accent to his flights of anger and instances of South Philly wit, Zielinski never looks as if he’s giving a performance. He is living Nicky Grillo in all of his variations.
It is Zielinski that makes you empathize with Nicky even when you disagree with him or think he acting out of spite and cruelty. The actor elicits even more regard when Nicky makes a salient point or has to cope with the realities of situations he may have indirectly fomented but are not his fault.
Zielinski comes across as a man committed to doing what he thinks is right and living in the manner his father, the son of an immigrant, instilled in him. His Nicky follows a code of manhood that threatens to break or defeat him, but he adapts enough to prevail.
William Rahill is another who doesn’t show a sign of acting as Vince Turati, Nicky’s lifelong friend and a smooth politician when he has to deal with his two properties and their feuding tenants.
Rahill is great at being the guy who hangs around and only snaps to attention when his interest is somehow at stake. You can see his Vince hanging around many shops in Philadelphia, the guy who comes around to have a little chat and moves on to the next set of ears and, maybe, the next cheese steak.
Brian Cowden showed range and depth as Stanley, the police officer who has been taking guff from Nicky since he worked for him as a child and who has been an on-again, off-again boyfriend to Nicky’s daughter.
Cowden shows strength, and at times seething resentment, behind the calm, respectful demeanor he adopts when Nicky is present. Stanley is a bit cowed by Nicky, someone he sees as a parent figure and an example of what his father, also a friend and employee of Nicky, thought a man should be.
In general, the way Cowden hides his feelings is admirable. He exudes emotion by suppressing it. When Stanley does let go of his feelings, Cowden is believable. His most dramatic moment in “Down Past Passyunk” is all the more stunning because of Cowden’s realistic acting.
Alex Keiper is the right combination of combative and loving as Nicky’s daughter, Sophia. Only child and widowed father are a bit at odds when we meet them. Squabbles arise from Nicky’s refusal to learn modern technology and from his stubborn dislike to the neighborhood newcomers.
Keiper lets you see Sophia as the character describes herself, a no-nonsense, independent woman who knows who she is and is happy in her life.
Sophia likes to be in control. She is the reasonable person in Nicky’s life and frustrated because her father doesn’t see she’s trying to help him and bring Grillo’s Steaks to the 21st century. When Keiper leaves the stage, you feel a sense of genuine loss.
Bobby Plasencia is sophisticatedly cool as Iggy Guerrero, a man, who unlike Nicky, makes decisions based on research and not on instinct. Plasencia makes Iggy the congenial diplomat who, if dealing with a less obstinate and doubt-free man than Nicky, would be able to work out any issues.
Plasencia’s ease lent class to Pfeiffer’s production.
Alice Yorke has a wonderful late scene, in which she adds to the authenticity and quality of the cast.
Kittson O’Neill may be little formal as the “Action News” reporter, Tambrey Walker. She retains the stiffness of the sound studio even when she is supposed to be relaxed and just conversing with someone she just interviewed.
Ian Paul Guzzone met the challenge of turning what looked like one simple set into three. His eye for detail is great, and both of the designs for Nicky’s restaurant and for the coffee shop were creatively believable.
Alison Roberts did her usual fine job in dressing the cast. I especially liked the casual clothes she chose for Vince, and the suits in which she dressed Nicky and Stanley, two men who usually do not wear suits and look a little awkward and a little too big for them.
Christopher Collucci’s sound brought much of South Philadelphia hubbub to the Adrienne. Drew Billiau daytime lighting for Grillo’s was quite natural. He also did a good job in a scene in which Nicky witnesses a crime in progress and which required several kinds of light simultaneously.
“Down Past Passyunk” runs through Sunday, April 27 as produced by InterAct Theatre Company at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $33 with generous discounts to seniors and students. They can be obtained by calling 215-568-8079 or going online to www.interacttheatre.org.