As a long-time resident of the Italian-American section of Williamsburg (going on 17 years) and a one-time renter on Frost Street off Graham Avenue (two years), I was excited about seeing Belinda McKeon’s new play, Graham & Frost, at PS 122. Presented by The Sullivan Project in partnership with the Third Annual Festival of Irish Theatre (which runs till October 3), this 45-minute one-act centers on an ramshackle Italian restaurant and the trio of neighborhood residents who come together to bring it back to life. Aside from some fleeting moments by the performers, however, this show from the award-winning Irish playwright and novelist simply does not ring true. Perhaps if I didn’t live in the area I would have another opinion of Graham & Frost. But while there are a few genuine laughs and emotions, the characters are too broadly drawn: Benny, the gruff Italian-American butcher from the neighborhood; Sam, the hipster chef; and Luca, the Euro-Italian who bought the restaurant from his great aunt. All have secrets — some shocking, some ho-hum — that are gradually revealed.
Graham & Frost starts promisingly enough. The set design by Tsubasa Kamei and Jennifer Stimple captures the broken-down Brooklyn aesthetic. Sam (Dan Shaked, a recent NYU Tisch grad) enters the dilapidated establishment, strewn with religious iconography and showing signs of DIY improvement, to answer a Craigslist ad for a chef. He certainly looks like a Williamsburgian in his skinny jeans, Converse sneakers, and cardigan. But his costume begs the question: Would someone really wear that outfit to a job interview, even if they were a 20-something hipster?
When Benny the butcher (Steven Randazzo, a SAG/AFTRA/Equity member whose credits include Law & Order) arrives in a blood-spattered apron with a meat cleaver in his hand, one of those few moments of humor I mentioned also arrives as Benny pretends to be enraged at this upstart’s disrespect. But even Benny’s apparel raises the question of why a chef- and menu-less restaurant weeks away from opening would even have a butcher. What exactly is he chopping in a kitchen that doesn’t yet exist?
As the old and new converge in the characters of Sam and Benny, the playwright is clearly trying to examine the tensions between the old and new residents of the rapidly expanding Williamsburg. Benny comments that newcomers expect old-timers to act like The Sopranos. But instead of offering a complex version of Italian-American life like that seminal HBO drama, Graham & Frost indulges in cardboard caricaturization. Benny, in particular, is a goombah stereotype, clueless and useless. And Sam’s smarminess embodies the worst characteristics of the holier-than-thou bohemian that has come to represent the Billyburg hipster.
When the fresh-from-Italy owner Luca (Enrico Ciotti, a Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater grad) enters, he and Sam strike a rapport due to the budding chef’s knowledge of Italian cuisine and the language itself. As the two young men converse in Italian, Benny becomes enraged that they are mocking him, since he cannot speak the language. This leads to confrontations between the various pairs that highlight the simmering resentments between all three characters. Violence ensues in the most unrealistic ways.
For instance, Luca tells Sam towards the end of the play that Benny is his friend. If so, then why does he not only humiliate the butcher, but also pull a knife on him? And why does Sam seem only to demonstrate arrogance and disrespect when, once again, he’s there to look for a job?
Although the script is problematic, the performers do inject humor in the right moments, especially Mr. Randazzo, who generates the most laughs with the somewhat stale jokes. Mr. Shaked has the hipster looks and attitude, but his character is cliché. At the performance I saw, Mr. Ciotti struggled with his lines. The direction by Thomas G. Waites could use more focus as well with characters many times loitering onstage when the two other actors are otherwise engaged.
In the Author’s Notes to the program, McKeon says that she has lived in the area since 2005 and “even since then, this neighborhood has changed.” The neighborhood has actually been changing over the last 20 years, when artists first moved to North Williamsburg to occupy warehouse loft spaces. That “gentrification” has since spread to surrounding neighborhoods like Bushwick and Greenpoint.
When McKeon asserts “a new community has been making these streets their own,” I think she marginalizes the Italian-American community in East Williamsburg that is still a prominent presence in the neighborhood, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and the Giglio Boys. And ultimately, Graham & Frost oversimplifies the relationship between those residents who have been here for a long time and those who have just arrived.