Jory returns to direct a Shanley comedy

Full disclosure: I have a “theater” crush on Jon Jory. Since college, when I studied the legendary artistic director who built Actors Theatre of Louisville into a Tony-award-winning, Pulitzer-Prize-birthing behemoth, I’ve been in awe of him.

    I also might have a little crush on playwright John Patrick Shanley. Shanley, who is no stranger to Actors Theatre, has premiered works at Humana Festivals and won a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a Tony.

    So I wasn’t completely unbiased when I settled in to watch Actors’ production of “Italian American Reconciliation” — written by Shanley and directed by Jory.

    Aldo Scalicki (Drew Cortese), an Italian-American mama’s boy with a penchant for the dramatic, helps us navigate the love triangle at the play’s center. His buddy, Huey Maximilian Bonfigliano (Josh Stein-Sapir), has concluded that he can only regain his inner strength by dumping his girlfriend, Theresa (Lee Fitzpatrick) — over whom “half the guys in the neighborhood are jealous of” him — and convincing his prickly ex-wife Janice (the terrific Alexandra Tavares) to come back. Aldo executively decides this is crazy and goes to woo Janice to prevent any reconciliation with Huey.

    The plot isn’t necessarily the draw here. The story is given to flights of fancy, and Jory wisely plays up that element. He emphasizes and elaborates on the romantic, operatic quality of love — a brilliant juxtaposition to the characters’ highly ordinary lives. He also includes characters from commedia dell’arte (Sean Andries and Angela Sperazza) that flit about the stage like sprites and produce props. He playfully evokes “Romeo and Juliet,” albeit a version in which Janice’s “Juliet” threatens Aldo’s “Romeo” with a spade as he ascends her balcony. Later, when Janice descends to meet Huey, instead of a predictable kiss, Jory cues soaring music, and the couple begins a waltz that eventually sweeps them offstage.

    This isn’t the play for a tricked-out set. Scenic designer Paul Owen complements Jory’s fanciful vision with a simple and efficient stage painted in baby blue and dappled with clouds. At the conclusion, a huge, bright moon behind it all enhances the romantic ambiance.

    Is this Shanley’s finest work? No, not even close. There’s a two-page insert in the playbill about the duality of Italian women, but none of the three female characters are fleshed out enough to be much more than their superficial identities: maiden, seductress, mother. Furthermore, the end of the play feels abrupt.

    But Shanley knows how to write sharp, funny dialogue with characters who talk to, instead of at, each other. He knows a play thrives by focusing on age-old dilemmas, such as whether to follow heart or head. Without Jory at the helm and a less engaged cast, the production might have elicited a very different review. By highlighting the whimsy, “Italian American Reconciliation” ranks as one of the more enjoyable evenings spent at Actors this year.