Mark Southers' new play brought to mind a coupleof films I'd seen recently. Like Clint Eastwood's GranTorino and Phillippe Faucon's Dans La Vie, the playdescribed a culture clash. In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays aracist retired Detroit autoworker living next to a Hmong family.Dans La Vie, an excellent French film that screened at thePittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival, depicted bonding between anelderly Jewish woman and older ethnic Arab woman.
Southers' play, like the earlier installment inthis busy local theater-maker's Culture Clash series, focusedon one facet of a conflict that to Americans seems at least asintractable, if not older than, modern Arab-Israeli tensions: theone between African-Americans and people of European descent, hereItalian-Americans.
Somewhat like Gran Torino, I Nipoti ("TheNephews") starts as comedy, though it actually careensfurther, into outright farce. Two men, a pizza-shop-owner and thecousin he employs, have hidden their elderly and seemingly comatoseItalian-immigrant uncle in a nursing home in hopes of extracting hisfamily-secret sauce recipe. But while Gran Torino'sredemptive second act is driven by the threat of violence, INipoti looks for a bittersweet, even gentle resolution.
The play has its faults. Moreso than Southers'first two Culture Clash plays, Hoodwinked and JamesMcBride, it spools out long lectures about racism that bring thenarrative to a screeching halt. But it finds its own artisticredemption in some nice touches. One's a smart act-one sightgag in which one of the nephews, Nico, panics because he thinks theleg he's preparing to massage (to improve circulation) is hisuncle's, discolored by a blood clot; instead, the limbsuddenly proves that of Obadiah, a nursing-home resident who, likethe facility's staff, is African-American.
The splendid Tony Bingham, as Nico, and the wonderfulKevin Brown, as Obadiah, make comic hay with the scene. But it'salso a clever way to point out the arbitrariness of using skin colorto classify people.
Later, Southers explores the point in further sceneswith Nico and Obadiah. Nico, kindhearted but kind of slow, says,"You're white and I'm black. It's as simpleas that." But of course it's not. Plenty of folks ofMediterranean ancestry called "white" are darker thanmany of the people we call "black."
With their humanist values, and a tendency towardearnestness, culture-clash narratives can feel old-fashioned. Butwork like Gran Torino (which is really an urban Western), theincisive, fast-paced Dans La Vie and the sometimes poignant,sometimes raucously funny I Nipoti prove you can make yourpoint while entertaining, too.
I Nipoti continues through Sun., March 29.