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Curtain Call Theatre offers a generational comedy

Over the River (L to R - Pat Brady, Chad Reid, Rich Angehr, John Noble)
Curtain Call Theatre
(L to R) Pat Brady, Chad Reid, Rich Angehr, John Noble in "Over the River"

Joe DiPietro seems to be the playwright of choice in this area. Curtain Call Theatre in Latham is now offering his comedy, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” at its Latham home, through December 5. In the spring, Playhouse Stage Company presented his musical, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” at the Cohoes Music Hall.

Both plays are crowd pleasers that drive critics crazy. DiPietro has a way of elevating plays that critics love to find fault with because of their simple premises and obvious and predictable plot points. But even critics realize that beyond his very funny dialogue, he somehow elevates his simple characters into real human beings.

His plays don’t try to be profound. Instead, they are undeniably charming, insightful and pleasing evenings in the theater.

“Over the River and Through the Woods” is a prime example. It’s a simple tale of two sets of grandparents who are deeply connected to their grandson. Nick has dinner with the four of them in their New Jersey homes every Sunday. When he informs them that he has been offered a promotion that requires his relocation to Seattle, it is a crushing announcement.

They plead with him and try to guilt him into staying in the area. They even try to fix him up by inviting a single, Irish girl to meet him at one of their very ethnic Italian dinners. It’s the kind of situation you expect to find on any family-oriented television sit-com.

But, though his subjects are familiar, DiPietro is neither a lazy or shallow writer. If many of the laughs seem obvious, they are always helpful in character development. Within a few minutes you not only feel as if you know these people, you care about them as well. Performances by John Noble and Kathleen Riley as one set of grandparents and Pat Brady and Rich Anghehr as the other, bring depth and basic wisdom to each of the older characters.

However, the subtle key to lifting this work above sit-com level is Di Pietro’s choice to make the grandson the person to leave the family. Their children have already fled to warmer climates. Nick is 29 and the grandparents about 80, which means there are about 50 years separating them.

Because of this span, “Over the River …” is no longer a play about a child neglecting his parents or a parent being too needy. The subtext is about society and the changes that have affected the family dynamic. Skipping a generation makes the social and cultural distance between Nick and his grandparents as significant as it is funny.

The play makes the point that older generations saw work as critical to the stability of the family. (The grandparents live only two doors away from each other.) Family first was critical for survival in a new country. Having the situation two generations removed from the family arriving in America, it shows how over the years the concept of work has changed. Today it is a source of pride. Career advancement is more important than family stability.

It also questions if the goal of providing future-generations with more than you had is nurturing the best values. These insights make the play more than a family comedy. It also adds thought-provoking social and cultural elements to a familiar story.

At Curtain Call, Chad Reid as Nick does a terrific job in making clear his difficulty living in two different worlds. His affection for his grandparents, as well as his frustrations, are made affectingly genuine. His conflict about wanting what is best for himself is also on display as Reid makes clear he honors the values of his grandparents but doesn’t know how to satisfy both their needs and his ambitions.

The slight twist of him actually being attracted to Caitlin, the blind date, is also an important factor in showing the differences over half a century of courtship. Played charmingly by Emily Rae Fernandes, Caitlin likes Nick almost as much as he is attracted to her. But she, being a 21st century woman, wants her own control over picking a life-partner.

Director Steve Fletcher shows trust in allowing his actors to play broadly early in the play in order to gather laughs. However, in their monologues and private moments he guides his talented cast to turn stereotypes into characters who are never less than real or caring individuals.

“Over the River and Through the Woods” is more than a pleasant evening of theater. It’s the kind of play that is a perfect vehicle with which grandparents can introduce their teenage grandchildren to the world of theater.

It continues at Curtain Call Theatre, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham. For tickets and schedule information go to curtaincalltheatre.com or call 518-877-7539

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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