How do you feel about the 1955 Oscar-winning movie Marty, with Oscar-winning Ernest Borgnine in the title role? What's your attitude towards the 1987 Moonstruck, for which Cher took home the coveted statuette as best actress? If you're devoted to either one or both, there's a strong possibility you'll get a large charge from Vincent Amelio's How Alfo Learned to Love, now at 59E59.
The relatively new comedy -- it played the Sanford Meisner Theatre in 2005 and the New York Fringe Festival in 2010 -- tells (you might even say "retells") the tale of an earnest, likable blue-collar Italian man advancing toward middle-age who hasn't yet found a woman to marry, despite (or because of) his volatile family's carryings-on.
This time around the man, who would never be mistaken for a GQ cover but has his own appeal, is Alfo Idello (balding, fresh-faced Christian Thom). He's the accomplished baker who looks to take over the business from his father Sal (Robert Funaro). That's unless his sister Maria (Joanna Bonaro), who has a better business head than he does, prevails over him.
How Alfo Learned to Love -- which apparently has also been known as How Alfo Learned to Love Women -- takes place in the present and on Steven C. Kemp's set featuring display cases for cakes with names like Fiorella, but there are flashbacks to the baker's adolescence when he palled around with Tony Vallone (Dominick LaRuffa Jr.) and got to know the best friend Gianna (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti) of his sister Belinda (Jenna D'Angelo).
On hand to harangue Alfo regularly are his quick-tempered, quick-to-lash-out mother Maria (Joanna Bonaro) -- "I hit you because I love you," she explains -- and his deceased grandpa (Armen Garo), who's around to give advice. Gramdpa must give it and Alfo must act on it, since that's the understanding on which he will make the transition from Purgatory to Heaven. Alfo has another advice giver in Father Carmine (Nick DeSimone), the local priest to whom the troubled baker doesn't so much confess as consult for dating aid.
Not long after How Also Learned to Love begins and when Alfo and Gianna, who's three years older than he, interact, it's quite clear where the action is headed. That includes not only Alfo's future with Gianna but also the frequency of the Idello clan conflicts.
Things are certainly unsurprising for anyone who recalls even the merest Moonstruck details. But as is often the case with predictable plots, how the playwright gets there can be more than enough to keep the interest. Amelio does a smooth job of it, and there are impressive contributions from director Daisy Walker and the cast. Walker brings out the humor of the situations, which cover Alfo's slow maturity over two decades
She also makes certain the family's tinderbox quality comes across as played by the ensemble. Thom's Alfo is invaluable. He wins audience approval at the get-go, and from then on he has patrons pulling for him. He's effective as both the adult Alfo and the teenage Alfo. His transformation from the older Alfo to the younger with no more than the resetting of his expression is especially effective. The rest of the cast members have their performing wiles on display as well.
If there's anything wrong with the volubly gentle How Alfo Learned to Love, it's Grandpa (not for Garo's performance, though), who hangs around a little too much. By the play's homestretch he's threatening to become tedious. Alfo's talking to him when no one else is aware he's in the room eventually gets on the nerves.
Because playwright Amelio's surname and the surname he gives the Idello quintet are similar, there's the temptation to assume How Alfo Learned to Love is autobiographical, and that's why the dramatist was compelled to write a work that brings with it such a deja-vu feel. Whether or not that's the impetus behind it doesn't really matter. How Alfo Learned to Love is an attractive enough human comedy to overcome any possible misgivings.