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Gemini Descending 

A coming-of-age comedy whose dramatic structure is less than engaging

Wednesday, Oct 5 2005
The climax of Albert Innaurato's play Gemini doesn't occur where you'd expect to find it. It's not the part where a drunk, middle-aged, Irish-American divorcee threatens to throw herself off a telegraph pole. Nor is it the moment when a mixed-up Harvard undergraduate with a weight problem and an infatuation with Maria Callas tells his girlfriend he's gay, nor is it when he suddenly announces that he's running off to Boston to kick-start a new phase of his love life. The peak of Gemini occurs, rather less dramatically, at the point at which the aforementioned Harvard undergrad, in a particularly mixed-up moment on his 21st birthday, sprays his neighbors, friends, and relatives with birthday cake and lurches offstage in a huff.

Francis Geminiani, the conflicted young hero of Innaurato's coming-of-age comedy, might be an opera buff, but Innaurato's play is anti-operatic in composition. Set in a scruffy, ethnically diverse district of South Philadelphia, the play describes what happens when Francis, back in the ol' neighborhood for the summer, receives a surprise birthday visit from his sometime squeeze, the waspish Judith, and her athletic younger brother, Randy. Much to the consternation of Francis, Judith and Randy pitch a tent in the Geminianis' backyard. The three students then spend a weekend cracking sophomoric jokes, eating copious amounts of spaghetti with Francis' dad and his partner, Lucille (two lovable clichés of working-class Italian-America), and fending off the attentions of the Irish-Jewish people next door -- a bighearted exclamation point of a woman, Bunny, and Herschel, her fat and possibly autistic son. The play is full of Sturm und Drang, but that which you'd consider to be dramatic in the conventional sense is constantly deferred: The assorted suicide attempts, bouts of physical violence, and infidelities seem inauthentic and cartoonish in comparison with the play's deeper interest in the trivial, the coincidental, and the mundane.

While serious drama traditionally relies upon a steady build to a crux followed by a resolution, bathos and anti-climax are mainstays of comedy. But even funny plays tend to include a steady build to a high point. Innaurato's play doggedly, and not necessarily successfully, explodes this notion. From the grinding of the dumpster truck that wakes up Francis at the beginning to the near-constant shouting that so often accompanies depictions of Italian-American households on stage and screen (witness Mambo Italiano, Big Night, etc.), Gemini is a noisy affair. But the cacophony is mostly hot air.

It is this lolloping, essentially anti-dramatic rhythm that makes Innaurato's comedy tricky to stage. For a variety of reasons, Actors Theatre of San Francisco doesn't quite manage to make the play's series of nonevents work. Part of the problem stems from the size and feel of the space. The tiny black-box theater (the play occupies the smaller of the company's two auditoriums) might give frigid chamber plays like Krapp's Last Tape or The Caretaker a warming intimacy, but it is just too small for the combination of naturalistic setting and larger-than-life characterization that Gemini demands. Biz Duncan's intricate set design, which expertly crams the realistic-looking backyards of two adjacent houses -- including room to pitch a tent -- into a few square feet, overwhelms the space. Add some lumpy, ill-fitting fat suits, an unforgiving white light, and a busy, if well-executed, soundscape of operatic arias, garbage collectors, and the intermittent snapping of swing doors, and there's little room left for acting.

The movie director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) is quoted as having once said to a screenwriter, "You can't do it that way, you'll spoil the anti-climax." The director of Actors Theatre's production of Gemini, Kenneth Vandenberg, might have offered his cast similar advice. Some of the performances -- such as Denise Polt's bombastic, busty Bunny -- shout; others whisper. Daniel Montesano, for instance, makes for an exceedingly po-faced Francis, shuffling about the stage like a bit of undercooked pizza dough throughout. But whether performing as if before a packed house at La Scala or to oneself in the bedroom mirror, the actors draw very little distinction between the high points and low points of the plot. The end result is one of shapelessness.

The actors and the director are not entirely to blame. The issue, ultimately, lies in the choice of play. For one thing, Innaurato's relentless substituting of real climax for anti-climax may suggest the characters' procrastination and inability to face their true feelings. It might also be a commentary on society's preoccupation with the little things in life. But the technique of flattening out the highs and lows doesn't exactly make for exciting theater.

For another, Gemini feels rather dated. Written when the author was just 25 and fresh out of Yale Drama School, the play's brash vernacular, jousting ethnicities, and fluid sexuality probably seemed kind of different and risqué back then. Yet Gemini shares neither the savage wit of The Idiots Karamazov (which Innaurato penned with Yale buddy Christopher Durang) nor the anger and shock of The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie (published, like Gemini, in 1977). Gemini may have enjoyed a four-year run on Broadway in the late '70s, but let's put things in context: That was back when shows like Annie and I Love My Wife graced the Great White Way.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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