"Bread and Onions," the sequel, arrived Sunday night at the Calumet Arts Cafe as Buffalo actor and writer Joseph G. Giambra presented more of his recollections of life on Buffalo's West Side in the old days.
This new set of reminiscences, covering the years right after World War II, is gathered under the title "Bread and Onions II: Valvo's and Beyond." Like the first installment, "Bread and Onions: The Last Neighborhood," it is an evening of impressions and stories of the people, places and events of what was then a strongly Italian-American part of town.
It is told in a sometimes staccato verse-prose shared by five actors who read from the script while they are, for the most part, perched on stools set across the Calumet's small stage. A piano player sets the mood, and on occasion the actors sing songs to illustrate some point in a fragmented story line.
For a time, things stay strictly impressionistic. In what is something like a prologue, Phil Knoerzer presents an amusing mock-tale strung together from Humphrey Bogart movie titles -- maybe every one of them! It made the point that movies permeated life in the '40s, all right, but the conceit got a tad stale somewhere around the time "Sabrina" entered the picture.
The main action begins with a flood of impressions: Breezy's Pawn Shop; a cop watches his horse eat his oats in front of the Forget-Me-Not Flower Shop; white-gloved ladies pass Gandy's Seafood House; bookmakers hang out near the House of Quinn -- all this on Chippewa Street. Then there's Saltzman's Bakery and Deli, the Wonder Bar, Jew Murphy's Omega Cafe, W.T. Grants. The old Buffalo references keep flooding out.
It helps to know these places from your own experience, or at least to have a prior picture courtesy of a relative who lived it. Outsiders may get lost. To some this performance may be something like looking at home movies when you don't have the slightest idea who that idiot mugging for the camera is and why everybody thinks he's so darn amusing.
Of course, Buffalonians can effortlessly sink into the nostalgia of it all, let it flow over them -- the trips to Jimmy Papas Texas Red Hots and Whitemans' Song Shop, a stopoff at Valvo's, the favorite coffee shop of the title.
Luckily, the moviehouse metaphor soon re-enters, getting us aliens out of Buffalo and into the larger world through film. There are quotes from "Asphalt Jungle" and "The Man From Laramie" that anybody can relate to. We find out that movies are 12 cents, big money for a kid. One character suggests a way to get in free: "Backwards! Walk in backwards, like you're leaving. Sometimes it works! Very deceiving."
Except at the beginning and near the end, director Jason Trost maintains the sit-down format. It's up to the five actors -- Knoerzer, Susan Toomey, Giambra, Constance McEwen and Neil Garvey -- to supply the dramatic tension. It is a real challenge. Things can go static and in this opening performance they occasionally did. The dialect changes and abrupt shifts from character to character compound the problem. And although Richie Mecca does a fine job, the piano is just too ever-present, half-obscuring all the good work of the actors. Mood isn't everything.
But the five actors kept things moving at a bracing clip. They moved most gracefully from mismatched duets (Giambra and Toomey) to plain-speak descriptions to very lively characterizations.
It helped that more developed stories finally arrived. After so many fleeting glimpses of things, these more or less sustained narratives gave a much-needed propulsion. That forward push was helped along by the way Giambra has his lines bounce around among the five actors, even to the point where two or three actors might share a single sentence. It's an effective device neatly executed by the actors.
Giambra, the former restaurateur, naturally revels in descriptions of food: "crusty sesame seed bread that entombed fried peppers and eggs." And in the reactions of eaters of food: "He smelled its now-crystallized, garlicky essence through its waxed shelter." This is all delightful, mouthwatering stuff.
But later the topics get a little rougher. A guy named Tony the Worm is killed (which is deemed justice) and with him an old guy, a music-shop keeper named Harry Gray. What makes it weird and funny is that it all happens to Bing Crosby's voice from a speaker over a storefront window. He's singing "White Christmas," which Garvey nimbly executes.
"Bread and Onions" is often great fun, especially at those times when rhythms and bent words come tumbling out and nearly drown out all ordinary sense. During those moments, you will be excused if you think that you have slipped into a group reading of some Italian-American "Jabberwocky."
RATING: *** STARS