Dan Lauria has enjoyed an impressive and satisfying career as a performer. He's been in movies galore, is still stopped by strangers who loved him as the Dad on TV's award-winning Wonder Years and he made his Broadway bones as Lombardi and as Jean Shepherd in the Tony-nominated Christmas Story. Dan's also a published author with three children's books, designed to spark creativity in his six-year-old godson, called The Godfather Tales. No! No! Not that Godfather! Therein lies the rub or the rubout. Dan Lauria is so distressed by the glorification of the Mafia by the media, that he's refused to portray any Mafioso because he feels that promotes a skewed, negative view of Italian-American cultural contribution to American life.
So why did he write Dinner with the Boys? Because of something the late Dom DeLuise said to him when Dan told Dom he was writing a serious piece against the violence consumed by kids from TV. Dom told Dan not to preach, but write something funny with a food connection. Dan took Dom's advice to heart. Dan's mobsters in Dinner with the Boys are schlimazels, incompetents who can't do much right except cook, grow vegetables and tell tall tales. They've been exiled to northern New Jersey by Big Anthony Jr. after a hit went wrong, where they eat mystery meat and wait to learn their ultimate fate.
Casting came easy. Dan's buddies, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning and Peter Falk were perfect for the three mobsters, and Jack Klugman was a shoe-in for the non-Italian "The Uncle Sid," but God booked his original cast in Paradise while Dan was hunting for a producer. Finally, last year, Suzanne and Gabor Barabas presented the play at their New Jersey Repertory with Dan Lauria, Richard Zavaglia and Ray Abruzzo in the four roles. Critics and audiences got the joke. It was an instant sellout with not a single bad review!
"Every broken nose in New Jersey came," Lauria reports. "Including a guy in a black silk Armani suit and three BIG guys in warm-up suits, who laughed at everything, and afterwards asked me how I knew Sal Beducci?" Pat Addiss, a New Jersey Rep Board Member was so impressed with the ticket sales, the reviews and the laughter, she brought Dinner with the Boys to Manhattan in April.
In Ken Jaworski'soriginal New York Times review, he called the NJ Rep version; "A friendly, big lug of a play, which exists solely to please its audience, and more often than not it succeeds. Yes, you can see some of the jokes coming from a mile away. But they're still quite funny once they arrive." When it opened in NY the same Ken Jaworski said he liked it better in New Jersey. Why? Probably because he'd laughed at the jokes before. They lacked that element of surprise. The Times really should have sent another critic to review it.
Last Tuesday night, when I was there, every joke got the laughs it deserved. The audience walked out smiling, happy and hungry - our appetites stoked by the delicious descriptions of the food Richard Zavaglia cooked on stage. And those of us who'd opted to double-dip and join the cast at a FULL Italian dinner at Tony Di Napoli's leaped like starving gazelles to 43rd and Broadway where we broke garlic bread with author/star Dan Lauria, actor/director/teacher Richard Zavaglia of Donnie Brasco, and Ray Abruzzo, Little Carmine Lupertazzi for four seasons on you-know-what. Just remember, Tony di Napoli's family style dinner for one easily feeds a family of six, so bring enough baggies to hold the leftovers, and you won't have to cook for a week. I had a great time flirting with the adorable Ray Abruzzo, who laughed at everything I said, but was too exhausted from his roles to invite me to come home with him. Sigh!
This is a dinner any Soprano lover would love: thickly sliced, lightly dusted, tender, tender, tender, fried endless Calamari - I had four helpings, but they were tiny, hem, hem, - followed by a huge bowl of salad at which I barely nibbled to save space for the side of Meatballs (note the plural!); Rigatoni with Mushrooms in Vodka Sauce; scrumptious Penne with Broccoli, Garlic and Olive Oil; Veal Marsala; Eggplant Parmegiana; Italian Cheesecake, Cannoli; coffee, tea and a glass of vino. Tickets for Dinner and dinner are $129 which includes tax, tip, wine, and lots and lots of selfies, but only on Tuesday nights. Order at www.dinnerwiththeboysplay.com by clicking VIP Tuesdays. Tickets for the play only are available at www.telecharge.com. There's also Nonna's matinees on Wednesday where grandmothers get a complimentary bottles New Jersey best Italian Gravy. God forbid anybody's grandchildren should go hungry.