What's the difference between good corn and bad corn? And anyway, what's corn? Is it, like pornography, a thing you know only when you see it?
One suspects that to declare something "corny" is to say it appeals to a set of desires that need no mediating reason or logic. Corn is what happens when your forebrain can see the puppets' strings. Good corn might be what happens when you find you don't care. Even then, we like the stuff only grudgingly, because art that feeds our innards while starving our brains is a little rude. It leaves us with the nagging feeling that something essential has been ignored. Yet we ultimately overcome our reservations, most of us, because art's final and lasting appeal isn't to the number-crunching apparatus of the forebrain but to something deeper and dumber.
This isn't what Over the River and Through the Woods is about, but I think it's a good explanation of why it works. Over the River is a 14-year-old play written by a man who's spent most of his working life shoveling corn so pure that it's almost ethanol. Joe DiPietro's most famous offerings are probably the musicals All Shook Up, an Elvis-inspired trifle in which a guitar-wielding "roustabout" shakes up a town with his wild ways, and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which was essentially Seinfeld with a beat. Both shows were so inoffensive that they seemed as if they'd been lifted from prime time, and Over the River makes them look daring. But daring is not the point.
This is a play about four Italian grandparents eating lasagna in Hoboken. Not for Broward Stage Door are the blood and guts of GableStage, the frank talk of the Mosaic Theatre, or the protean craziness of Sol and Mad Cat. Instead, we get the paternal and maternal grandparents of Nick, a 20-something marketing exec who's spent his whole life in their shrinking shadows. His parents retired to Florida not long ago; his sister went to California. Only Nick and his grandparents remain in New Jersey, and Nick's continued presence and well-being has become the only motivating force in the old folks' lives. When Nick gets a promotion that will take him to Seattle, they freak. "Tengo familia!" they cry, over and over, expressing a family-first credo that has shaped their lives for generations, guiding them and their parents and their parents' parents through hardship after hardship after sacrifice so their children might have better lives. Now, with Nick on the verge of disappearing, the grandparents invite a young girl to dinner, hoping Nick will fall for her and build a family in Hoboken. Nick is mortified. Trouble follows. Drama! Then: trouble! Then: reconciliation. A few sage monologues from a few sage geezers. A moral or two. Some riffing on the strangeness of modern life. A couple of profound observations about the nature of the generation gap. And then all is well.
It sounds terribly unexciting, a little formulaic even, as though it were written for the screen instead of the stage, the product of a writer hoping to sneak something easy past the studio execs before making his mark with the script he's really into. But that's not the case. DiPietro apparently digs this stuff and is banking on the suspicion that you will too. And you probably will.
There are a lot of things that'll draw you into Stage Door's Over the River. A remarkable sense of place and history is summoned by the unapologetic meanness that Francesco Franconeri brings to Nick as his disastrous blind-date dinner progresses. His incarnation of Nick in those moments is so unself-consciously vile that it convinces you he's been around these people all his life and has lost all sense of etiquette or even decency in their presence. And when Kevin Reilley's elderly Nunzio grapples with whether to tell Nick about a potential terminal illness, he does it with precisely the salt I remember seeing in my own great-grandparents as they prepared to tackle the impossible for the benefit of the younger generation. Bob Levitt, as Nick's other grandfather, Frank, is a beautiful study in the combined strength and frailty that characterizes so many of the lonely aged. Actors Elayne Wilks and Miki Edelman are the grandmothers. Edelman reminded me of a friendlier Bea Arthur. Wilks came off like Jean Stapleton. Wilks and Reilley have a moment of senior-citizen ecstasy while engaged in an unconventional game of Trivial Pursuit that may be the warmest and funniest thing on any stage in this time zone at present.
I don't mean to imply that Over the River is a perfect show. The acting is a little forced in some places, even among the principals, but that is perhaps understandable. People who aren't really Italian grandmothers can come up with only so many different ways of saying "Let me fix you something to eat." The cast members' accents could have been more uniform, and the show's blocking and lighting are questionable. Yet these things, so bothersome before intermission, ultimately seem almost incidental. Over the River is not an exercise in dramatic virtuosity. It is a sweet, sad meditation on the way currents of emotion and history run through families. It works because it's honest — which looks a little corny. Families tend to be.