In Richard Edwin Knipe Jr.’s play, “Schooling Giacomo,” currently running off-Broadway, the Bronx feels more like a character than simply a setting.
Not that the play is lacking for well-developed characters. It’s actually chock-filled with roles that allow each talented cast members to shine throughout its two acts. But after most performances at Manhattan’s American Theatre of Actors, Knipe is approached by at least one Bronxite asking him what part of the borough he’s from, since his play primarily takes place in the Bronx, including scenes at Orchard Beach, Little Italy in Belmont and a family apartment where the title character Giacomo comes of age, for better or worse.
“I get that question a lot,” said Knipe. “People who live in the Bronx or grew up there really feel a connection with the play and the characters, which I’m thrilled to hear. This play couldn’t have been set anywhere but the Bronx, as far as I’m concerned.”
Knipe grew up on Long Island, but spent as much time as he could in the borough as a teen and young adult. “For some reason, all my girlfriends back then were from the Bronx, and that’s when I really fell in love with the borough,” he explained. “I think I spent every weekend in the Bronx for a long stretch of years, and the more I got to know the Bronx, the more I loved it.”
When he started writing “Schooling Giacomo,” which also had a successful run at the Philipstown Depot Theatre in Garrison last year, setting the play in the borough wasn’t a difficult decision. “There’s a real energy about the Bronx, its places and people that I’ve always been excited about,” Knipe explained. “To me, ‘Schooling Giacomo’ was a Bronx play even before I actually started writing it, when it was just a story bouncing around in my head. So when people from the borough come up to me and tell me that they really connected with it, it’s great. That means we’ve all done our jobs in bringing this story to life.”
That story follows the journey of Giacomo, intertwining memories of his far-from-perfect childhood in the Bronx with his present-day struggles as a single father trying to care for his teenage daughter, who is gravely ill.
Although the play covers a span of 40 years, Knipe deftly connects scenes from Giacomo’s boyhood with the internal and external challenges the character is currently facing as a grown man. There are some obvious links in the story lines: the young Giacomo dealing with his father’s murder, the older Giacomo facing the possibility his daughter’s illness may claim her young life, for instance. But the more subtle connections between past and present are what linger long after the final curtain, thanks to Knipe’s writing and direction, as well as the on-target acting up and down the cast.
Knipe said he added several characters to the play before its current production, which runs through April 26. But the bulk of the story revolves around Giacomo and his older self, his booze-addled mother, the neighborhood mobster who takes the youngster under his formidable wing, and Giacomo’s three uncles, whose arguments about everything from how to raise Giacomo to neighborhood gossip to what diner serves the best sandwich draw the loudest laughs throughout the comedic drama.
The “schooling” in the title refers to the often harsh lessons that life packs for Giacomo, both as his dysfunctional family crumbles around him in the 1970s, and as he watches helplessly as his daughter’s health fails.
But there are also lessons of all sorts that flow intentionally and unintentionally from the key people in Giacomo’s life, including his desperate and drunken mother Irene, the well-meaning but trio of uncles and in particular, Vukey Fanuchi, the local wiseguy who forms a lifelong bond with Giacomo.
In his unique but recognizable vernacular of Italian-English, the wonderfully realized character of Mr. Fanuchi dispenses bits of wisdom about life, from the importance of avoiding Italian priests who haven’t yet eaten when going to confession (and the Irish monsignor all together) to the true meaning of family. Whether it’s holding court as the feared and respected boss of the neighborhood outside the corner café, or 40 years later, as a wheelchair bound ex-con confined to “a sissy living,” as he pronounces “assisted living,” Mr. Fanuchi’s lessons prove as rich as the cannoli from Arthur Avenue that Giacomo sneaks in for him.
Throughout the play, the Bronx looms large, perhaps providing the perfect setting to enable Knipe’s characters to successfully walk the tightrope between stereotypes and fleshed-out, interesting and above all compelling people.
“I’d have to agree that the Bronx is almost like a character in the play,” Knipe said. “And great one at that.”
Tickets for “Schooling Giacomo” are $35. Showtimes at the theater on West 54th Street between 8th and 9th avenues are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, call (888) 220-6284, or visit schoolinggiacomo.com.