Tight, traditional and full of testosterone, THE VIOLIN serves as a welcome throwback to the three-man crime dramas that used to dominate the American stage. Like its predecessors, ORPHANS and AMERICAN BUFFALO, Dan McCormick’s naturalistic meditation on greed and loyalty is well-made, fast paced and sports a kind of gritty elegance in its rhythm and language. Unlike Lyle Kessler and David Mamet, though, McCormick endows his characters with charm and warmth, and grants them at least a fighting chance at salvation.
On a dark winter night in a cramped New York tailor shop (meticulously festooned with clutter by set designer Harry Feiner), proprietor Giovanni AKA Gio (Robert LuPone) patiently plies his trade as he has done for decades. What makes tonight different, though, is that a grim anniversary is close at hand. Years ago, his neighborhood friends Bobby (Peter Bradbury) and Terry (Kevin Isola) lost both of their parents to a murderous vendetta perpetrated by the Irish mob. Since that day, Gio has functioned as a kind of surrogate parent. Sadly, His attempts to instill good values in the boys have borne little fruit. Rather than pursue an education, Bobby, has chosen a life of petty crime. Terry, brain-damaged due to a childhood accident, can’t seem to hold a job at all. Something good, however, has come out of his latest fiasco. While driving a gypsy, Terry has discovered a 1710 Stradivarius that a forgetful passenger abandoned in the back seat. When Bobby discovers the monetary value of such an instrument, he begins hatching a plot to extort a pile of ransom money from its distraught owner. Terry’s hesitant at first, but his big brother’s powers of persuasion are hard to resist. Even Gio, who constantly espouses the virtues of “integra”, has to admit that he has little to show for all his years of toil. A little windfall wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome. With the whole gang on board, Bobby presses forward with the plan. Of course, these guys are hardly criminal masterminds, and unforeseen complications naturally ensue. Relationships are tested and guilty secrets bubble to the surface as the play accelerates to its darkly redemptive conclusion.
Like a jazz trio, the three members of the cast are able to shine individually while remaining deeply tuned to each other’s cadences. Isola, who easily could have played Terry as a stereotypical man child, instead shades his performance with a disarmingly authentic innocence. Likewise, Lupone doesn’t chew the scenery, even in the play’s more explosive moments. His Gio is a man of refinement and aspiration who, because of rough circumstances and poor choices, could never realize his full potential. The kinetic Bradbury is both comical and menacing as he prowls the stage like an animal in search of easy prey. In keeping with their characters’ agendas, director Joseph Discher assigns each actor a specific section of the room. Accustomed to being treated like a child, Isolda’s childlike Terry sits in a corner, impulsively jumping up when he feels an urge to be part of the conversation. Bradbury, as the energetic idea man, is placed at center stage. As the detail-oriented tailor, Lupone moves economically, leaving the safety of his work table only when necessary. It’s a smart bit of staging that subtly alerts the audience to the importance of the moment when he finally does take action. The younger guys can talk all they want. But it’s when Gio’s on the move that we know things are getting serious.
THE VIOLIN continues through October 14, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets (212) 279-4200.