Volume 76, Number 12 | August 9 - 15, 2006

Photo by Cie Stroud

Elizabeth Rossa and Dan Lauria in “A Stone Carver,’ William Mastrosimone’s play “whose time has finally come.”

‘A Stone Carver,’ chiseled to perfection

By Jerry Tallmer

Opening night went just fine, says William Mastrosimone, except, of course, for “that one little thing that always goes wrong.”

Right at the beginning of the play, when Raff and his girlfriend Janice come to talk with Raff’s irascible, shotgun-wielding father, the young woman, once the door is unbarred, is to bring forth from her purse a bottle of wine as a sort of peace offering. The shotgun is for use against cops or anyone else who by exercising “eminent domain” (read $$$) is about to bulldoze the limestone house the old man, Agostino Malatesta, built long ago with his own hands.

Elizabeth Rossa, the Janis of Mastrosimne’s “A Stone Carver” at the Soho Playhouse, reached in her purse for the bottle and it wasn’t there.

“Somebody goofed,” says the playwright. “Somebody didn’t put the bottle in her purse. I didn’t get excited. Elizabeth just left the stage, walking out through some hedges. And Dan Lauria” – as the explosive old Italian-American tyrant who has minimal regard for the get-along politics of his son Raffaele (Jim Irorio) — “kept right in character with ‘Where she go? What she do? What she doing over there?’ Elizabeth came back on with a bottle of real wine. It was almost a pleasure to watch.”

Maybe you should keep it in, Mr. Mastrosimone.

A short laugh. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

Of course Dan Lauria would stay in character. The man’s been an ace all his life – whether on stage, screen, or the tube, as producer, director, or (as here) actor.

“This is a tour de force for him too,” says Robert Kalfin, director of the show now at Soho Playhouse as three months ago at June Ballinger’s Passage Theater in Trenton, New Jersey. “Dan doesn’t really speak a word of Italian. It was in fact Dan who brought me this play. And in the middle of rehearsals, his back went out. It wasn’t the stage fight with the son. It was just sitting around. We had to suspend rehearsals for two weeks.”

The Agostino Malatesta whom Lauria is playing – the stone carver of radiant angels that look like his dead wife — is, says Mastrosimone, “based on my father and two of my uncles, but the core of the guy is me. My father was an artist who turned away from what he wanted to do to do what he had to do. He wanted to be an architect. The Depression stopped that. He started selling sandwiches at construction sites, and ended up employing a lot of people and paying a lot of taxes. Sometimes taxes can be worse than eminent domain.”

Thus John Mastrosimone, born in America in 1915. “A tough guy,” says the son who was born in New Jersey in 1947. “A rugged man, I should say. No, he didn’t talk like that” – the vivid broken Italian-English of Agostino Malatesta – “but he thought like that. When my father saw the play years ago he knew it wasn’t him. He didn’t board himself up with a shotgun [when they went to demolish his house for an access ramp]. He got a lawyer. The problem in playwriting is always to transfer complexity into some kind of simplicity.”

A problem one might have to work at for upwards of 30 years. “A Stone Carver” first saw daylight in 1974, when three years of pre-med at Tulane had convinced Bill Mastrosimone he didn’t want to become a doctor.

“It was then called ‘The Understanding,’ and it came out of me like an overdue baby in my first two weeks in a graduate playwriting class at Rutgers. The very first play I ever wrote. But I’d like to say that this is not a playwright reaching into a dusty trunk. It’s a play whose time has finally come.”

It had a student production at Rutgers in 1976, “and then went on the shelf for a long time,” and then, in 1986, when Mastrosimone — despite the Off-Broadway successes of his “The Woolgatherer” and “Extremities” — had given up New York “as a place to develop a play,” it received “a major rewrite” by him and a staging by (future all-star) Doug Hughes at Dan Sullivan’s Seattle Rep.

An interim production at Stony Point, New York, showed Mastrosimone “that what was wrong with the play was something wrong with me.”

Seasoning, that is, or want of it. “What really helps me now is I have the vantage of years. I’m a father now” — of five children, one of them a 13-year-old adopted daughter from Afghanistan. “I’m able to look back and see what my father went through.”

All of which presented Bob Kalfin, who has been around the track, many tracks, even longer and deeper than Dan Lauria — including the great years of Kalfin’s Chelsea Theater Center — “with the delicacy of putting Bill’s father on the stage. This actually happened to his family. He’s not yet over it.”

Kalfin had the same problem of delicacy, he remembers, when he staged Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” a wrenching work about the death of Ginsberg’s mother. “The characters in it were Allen’s mother, his father, and Allen himself. I thought: Oh God, what will Allen say? And what Allen had to say one day was: ‘You know that scene where they’re all eating oranges? Could you make it grapefruit?’ ”

The Mastrosimone ancestry, by the way, though Roman Catholic and FBI — “full blooded Italian,” says the screenwriting playwright who for a three-part TV documentary spent two and a half years in the immediate proximity of Frank Sinatra — was once, 700 years ago, Italian Jewish.

“It all goes back to Simon the Master, a merchant for Palestinians in Italy. Somehow in the 1300s he got on the wrong side of the dispute between those who thought the kings should rule and those who thought the popes should rule. He fled to Sicily, and his son became a physician.”

Of William Mastrosimone, Kalfin says: “He’s the real McCoy. This play is about the son’s journey [toward appreciating his father], but it’s also about the son’s fiancée, who in a certain sense takes us on a trip as she learns how to handle both father and son, neither of whom ar easy.

“Because the piece is naturalistic, someone said to me the other night: ‘Oh — kitchen sink!’ I said: ‘Far more than that, this is poetic drama. Like ‘Death of a Salesman’ it brings us American tragedy. And, like [the Miller], a tragedy not of kings but of the common man.”

Mastrosimone, the husband of former social worker Sharon Kurtz, has a play called “The Afghan Women” — born out of his intense months in that country in 1981, when the mujadeen were battling the Soviets — waiting to be brought to Broadway by his producer friend Eric Krebs. He has another play about his father mulling around in the back of his head. “I’m not done with him yet.”

Bob Kalfin has been thought of, in his time, as an Asian director, a black director (because, among other things, he did LeRoi Jones’s “Slaveship”), a Jewish director. His 97-year-old mother, Hilda Shulman Kalfin Epstein, can’t wait to see “A Stone Carver.” Maybe she’ll come away calling him an Italian director. Mama mia! — as John Mastrosimone, father of William, would not say, though Agostino Malatesta might.

You want irony? William Mastrosimone went back one day to look at the access ramp where his father’s house once stood. The access ramp had never been built. But a MacDonald’s had been plopped down there.

A STONE CARVER. By William Mastrosione. Directed by Robert Kalfin. Through September 3 at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, (212) 691-1555.

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