Cellino and Barnes: Even if you never met these guys, you feel as though you know them. You know their faces, their jobs, their jingle and, of course, their phone number. They are part of the local landscape; they go together like beef and weck. The only thing people aren't sure of is which one is Cellino (he often wears glasses) and which one is Barnes (he is the balding one).
So, when news broke in 2017 that Ross Cellino was suing Steve Barnes to dissolve their law firm, it was epic, like when the Buffalo Bills cut Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed on the same day in 1999. That was the end of an era, and the C&B breakup could be the same. With accusations – both personal and professional – flying back and forth, the legal proceedings had all the earmarks of a tragedy.
Or did they? Comedy writers Michael Breen, a West Seneca native, and David Rafailedes saw otherwise, and the result is "Cellino v. Barnes," playing for one weekend at the Alleyway Cabaret, and providing an imagined backstory about the breakup. With Breen and Rafailedes starring as the two main characters, the play is fast, funny and as rudely fictional as they can make it. The pair picks up on random details of the lawyers' dueling legal papers and spin them into a hysterical narrative made all the more entertaining by its occasional brushes with reality.
These characters are no Caesar and Brutus. They don't even have the gravitas of Martin and Lewis. Cellino, who followed his father, Ross Sr., into the law, is portrayed as a legal naif who describes his attributes as, "I'm young, I'm dumb, I'm full of fun." Breen doesn't attempt to look like Cellino in his portrayal, giving him more of a frat-boy charm as he boasts, "I'm a terrible lawyer, but people like me."
This attitude is dumbfounding to Barnes, who practices law with an unseemly vengeance and embraces the role of being "the creepy guy in the shed." To play Barnes, Rafailedes dons an astonishingly hideous bald cap with a matted fringe of hair and somehow keeps a straight face while Breen is mugging it up.
It is a joy to watch the two together, and the whole thing is wonderfully silly, with Barnes' flights into professional legal empire building a telling counterpoint to Cellino's detours into family-based largess. Barnes wants to expand coast to coast. Ross wants to hire his brother, Tony Cellino, to install expensive Japanese toilets in their offices for the staff. An incident involving a fax machine and China's one-child policy really throws things into a tizzy.
The firm survives all these strains, including a very real one, when both attorneys were found guilty of professional misconduct in 2005 for advancing loans to clients before they received their settlements. (No clients complained or were harmed, according to reports at the time.) Cellino was suspended from practicing law for six months, and Barnes renamed the group "The Barnes Firm" for a while, actions that provide the most humane moments in the play.
Eventually it becomes clear that a partnership formed on the basis of "You do what you want and I'll do what I want" cannot endure, despite a generous peppering of hometown references and more than a billion dollars in settlements awarded.
Over-the-top barely covers "Cellino v. Barnes," since the liberties Breen and Rafailedes take are so extreme that the disclaimer on their program says, "Sue us, we dare you." Just like the lawsuits, the play, which is directed by Hayley Huntley, remains a work in progress, allowing us to see the wheels turning onstage (as the wheels are falling off in court). No one will accuse either writer of being a great actor, but they don't pretend to be. They are pretending to be lawyers. However, for local audiences we offer one little suggestion: You might want to work on the pronunciation of "Gil Perreault."
Profuse vulgarity has the authors recommending the show for ages 18 and older. That sounds about right, since you probably have to be a certain age to catch a lot of the offhand local references anyway.
"Cellino v. Barnes"
3 stars (out of 4)
At Alleyway Theatre Cabaret through Nov. 3. Times are 7 and 9 p.m. Nov. 1 and 7 p.m. Nov. 3. Some shows are sold out, so check for availability in advance; $20 advance, $25 at the door.