After a brief hiatus, dinner theater impresario Jay Desiderio is back. The prolific Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre company re-opened last weekend in a back room of the family’s sprawling new restaurant, Bobby J’s Italian American Grille.
Jay is the theater’s director and runs the Cheektowaga restaurant and banquet facility with his brother Bob. The brothers’ adult children are servers, too. This is family institution, serving love in the form of entertainment.
To his estimate, Jay has produced roughly 120 dinner-theater productions, many of them at the former Desiderio’s on Broadway, a destination I had never visited. I’ll admit my prejudices: despite my love of both words, when put together, “dinner theater” never sang to me. Why does one need the other, I thought. What is either compensating for?
Well I’d have eaten crow if it came with a dinner salad. The company’s latest production – Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” – opened last weekend, and despite not being a musical, it sings like a bird. If the play is to be enjoyed as the evening’s last course, you’d refuse a doggy bag. This is a delicious serving of one of Simon’s unheralded plays, the middle child of his semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy.” It hits all the right notes and harmonizes with beautiful naturalism.
Speaking of singing birds, so, too, was my chicken Marsala. A fresh poultry paillard, with wine sauce, cremini mushrooms, a sprig of rosemary, steamed broccoli and roasted red potatoes, this dish hit all the high notes. It’s robust with lots of thought, care and attention to detail. There’s no new wheel here to speak of, but it reminds us why this dated dish was once so popular.
I’m tempted to say the same about Simon’s play, but that would be selling it short. A modest hit on Broadway with Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken, who later revised their roles on screen, the play is a quintessential Simon comedy, with piercing wit and probing intellectualism grazing the surface of mundane American life.
Eugene Morris Jerome, the would-be Simon, is a cocky fellow, though not rude about it. He just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and in Simon’s pleasing way, he learns it with open arms and great humility. It’s a good lesson in growing up, whenever that happens for you. I’ve always appreciated the way Simon finds wholesome resolutions for his subversive characters. They feel both old-fashioned now, nostalgic even, but also timeless and full of character. In “Biloxi Blues,” we see Eugene as a young man, grappling with his Jewish and writer identities as he prepares for deployment in World War II.
Jeremy Kreuzer brings an ideal blend of wit, paranoia and spunk to Eugene. Kreuzer is a unique type of character actor. He presents himself older than he appears, with a voice for radio that’s confident and mature, and a face from the 1940s, despite his boyish features. He is an ideal vessel for the still-growing, though intellectually suave Eugene. Kreuzer acts with great passion and appears to listen well. He feels present.
It’s often said that Eugene’s role as protagonist takes a back seat in this installation of the trilogy to bunkmate Arnold Epstein, a near-facsimile of Eugene if Eugene actually had the guts he says he does. Eugene talks the talk, but Epstein walks the walk. He is a fascinating character, one who appears so self-aware as if to be immune to growth, but who takes on humiliation with humility.
He is played by Ian Rawlins, an actor who is as captivating as his character. I hyperbolize more often than I should, but this is a time when I should: Rawlins gives a truly extraordinary performance that I’m still trying to figure out.
Once in a while, I’ll see an actor who appears so natural and innate that his or her work does not show – they simply exist. Their execution is so precise and reactionary that it’s not apparent how much of their characterization is their own personality. You hesitate to wonder the proportions of that ratio, that it might dilute the actor’s ability to transform.
I don’t question Rawlins, make no mistake – I only wonder how he did it. He nails every last detail of Epstein’s neuroses, from involuntary eyebrow twitching and nervous itching, to the illustrative finger-pointing and hand movements that italicize his every emphatic line. And he fills it in with a great deal of compassion and motivation. I’ve never seen anything like it from someone this young. It’s just a spectacular performance of an already fully formed character.
It is one more reminder, in an evening full of memories, that no matter how old the attraction, you can’t beat fresh ingredients and proper execution. Love is always in the details.
4 stars (out of four)
Where: Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre, at Bobby J’s Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga
When: Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 15 with evening and matinee performances. Visit mybobbyjs.com for schedule.
Tickets: $45 to $55