Poetry of Pizza-WW

Poetry of Pizza has right chemistry

03/3/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

What's the meaning of it all? And do you deliver?

Playwright Debrorah Brevoort delivers some spicy food for thought in "The Poetry of Pizza," which is enjoying its world premiere at Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown.

Brevoort, whose "Women of Lockerbie" earned some attention a few years ago, seems to be telling us that love and beauty are where you find them. Nothing new there, but fun is in the telling.

The play may go a bit overboard with showy theatrical devices, and an annoying tendency to have actors interact while physically separated (and, in some cases, the exact opposite). But the mixed bag of interesting characters, and a wonderfully eccentric sense of humor, make this a light and lively comic love story.

There's a high-minded setup to "The Poetry of Pizza," with its central character, poetry professor Sarah (Katrina Ferguson), lecturing about literary devices even she's bored with. A plain-looking workaholic, Sarah lives in her books, so romance is not on the prospectus of her appointment as visiting professor to a university in Copenhagen, the perfect setting for this melting pot of mismatched lovers.

Sarah, though, considers the urging of a friend, Pam (Wendy Peace), to have a fling during her European adventure, and opportunity comes quickly in the form of Heino Anderson (Mark Simmons), a handsome, but oily fellow academic. They debate the merits of romantic versus modernist poetry, and the importance of meaning vs. feeling.

"We dispensed with feeling a long time ago," says Heino just before propositioning Sarah with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Sarah finds a more suitable soulmate in the most unlikely of places -- a pizzeria run by Kurdish refugees. Rebar (Eli Ganias) and Soran (Joseph Pisapia) happily shatter the stereotype of Arab immigrants, even if they do run a fast-food joint and cling to some old traditions. They're more like a classic comedy duo, with a passing resemblance to Abbott and Costello, and are a surprisingly endearing pair. Rebar's bossy and opinionated, but sadly aware that his attitude puts off women. Soran, meanwhile, is cute, cuddly and soft-spoken, a dreamer who misses the figs and pistachios ("so fresh you can open them with your tongue") growing on the trees of his former home in Kurdistan.

It's love at first bite when Sarah stops by for a pizza to go, and takes out Soran instead. Most of the cast conspires to break them up, including Ule, an aging local whose wife (Michele LaRue) has gone agoraphobic and frigid. A running gag goes on too long about Ule's infatuation with Sarah, although it leads to an amusing encounter between Ule and Sarah's lusty landlady (Angela Della Ventura).

By this time "The Poetry of Pizza" has turned into a screwball comedy that would make Preston Sturges proud, but Brevoort also acknowledges the cultural differences that work against any such union.

There are also a few passages that should encourage parents to leave their younger children at home.

Does it lead to the happy ending required of all screwball comedies? Brevoort's path is unique enough that nothing is for sure until the very end, which you'll have to go and see for yourself.

Carl Wallnau's direction leans too heavily on the style dial, but he's assembled a fine cast that works well together. LaRue is a bit coarse and shrill, but helps the audience work up some sympathy for her would-be philanderer of a husband, a role that the reliable Hoyt seems to be enjoying. Della Ventura's character is more endearingly annoying. Ganias balances their work with desert-dry wit that is the perfect vehicle for Rebar's humorous observations. Simmons also shines as the lothario who assumes this plain Jane from the states is his for the asking.

But it is the unlikely chemistry between the lovers that sneaks up on you and gives you a big warm fuzzy when you least expect it. Frizzy-haired Ferguson is tall enough to see her reflection in Pisapia's shiny bald head, but the physical mismatch makes their coupling even cuter. And Pisapia's gentle, understated performance, sweet smile and puppy-dog eyes are enough to make Toby Keith want to hug him.