June 1, 2013

“Basilica” is Blessed with a Young Guardian Angel—and One Terrific Performance

Anyone with even the slightest awareness of the young pop star Justin Bieber and his recent antics knows that the mix of celebrity and adolescence can be a toxic combination.  So it’s very nice to report that the young actor Jake Cannavale has put his celebrity to good use by making his stage debut in the new play Basilica, which is running in a Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through June 22.

Cannavale may not yet have Bieber’s star wattage but he is the son of actor Bobby Cannavale and the screenwriter Jenny Lumet, the grandson of the film director Sidney Lumet and the great-grandson of the legendary performer Lena Horne. And, to be honest, it’s unlikely that I would have gone to see Basilica if he hadn’t been it. 
Now I’m glad I did see it because as imperfect a play as Basilica is, both its playwright Mando Alvarado and this production, sensitively directed by Jerry Ruiz, deserve attention. 

You may have noticed that both those names are Hispanic. And if you know even a little about theater in New York, you know that Hispanic playwrights, directors and even actors are woefully underrepresented on our main-stem stages. 

The fact that Jake Cannavale, who can claim Italian, Jewish, Cuban and African-American roots, would choose to make his maiden performance with this least theatrically represented of groups says a lot about him.
Basilica centers around a Mexican-American family living in a small Texas border town. The father Joe used to be a high-school football star but dropped out when Lela, the girl he loved—and still adores—got pregnant. 

By the time the play begins, the now-married couple have settled into a working-class life that revolves around trying to keep their jobs in a shaky economy, maintaining their faith by attending mass at the local titular church and raising their two teen kids, Ray and Jessica.  

The family’s routine is upset when a new priest, who grew up in the town but moved on to a grander life, arrives to head the basilica. All kinds of hell break loose and the play spins into melodrama.  

That latter statement isn’t entirely meant as a putdown.  I don’t mind being manipulated by a play—as long as the maneuvering is skillfully done. Alvarado clearly has affection for his characters and he writes dialog that is both real and engaging. And he has some important things to say about love, faith and family.
He isn’t, however, as deft at plot development.  You can see some twists coming from a mile away. While other events come out of nowhere and throw everything around them off-kilter. A would-be humorous subplot about Jessica’s flirtations with a variety of religions meanders as well.
Still, there’s some terrific acting in Basilica, most of it coming from Felix Solis, who brings such unaffected likability to Joe that the end of the play packs a surprising punch, despite the contrivances that get us there. 
And what of Cannavale?  Well, although he’s only 17 and is just finishing his senior year in high school, he’s chosen wisely for his stage debut: Ray, who agonizes over not being more like his father, is a central character in the play but the role is relatively small. 

It also helps that some of the young actor’s awkwardness dovetails with the character’s. But all that aside, Cannavale has a natural stage presence and, as my stepdaughter whispered when he made his first appearance, is just as cute as his dad. 

The young Cannavale made an equally impressive debut with his featured role last season as a troubled teen on Edie Falco’s TV series “Nurse Jackie,” but his Playbill bio says he’s headed to Emerson College in the fall.  His performance in Basilica suggests that, when he graduates, he should return to the stage.

No comments: