Albert Innaurato’s over-the-top comedy Gemini— set in a working-class, largely Italian-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia– first came to the New York City stage in 1977. For a time, the award-winning Gemini was the longest-running play on Broadway: It ran for four years and four months, and enjoyed a long afterlife in regional, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway productions. Innauarto’s play was also made into a 1980 movie named Happy Birthday Gemini. On a personal note, I vividly remember the TV commercials for Gemini on Broadway when I was a child; I don’t think I can remember a more funny teaser. (You can find that commercial on YouTube, by the way…) The play’s most iconic lines, which titillated TV audiences into buying tickets, featured the brassy character Bunny chastising her overweight son Herschel with “Take human bites!” and another character Lucille’s famous line, “I’m not hungry, I’ll just pick!” as she invaded other people’s dinner plates.
Koy Productions’ new incarnation of Gemini, directed by Daniel Roberts and now playing at The Lion Theatre at New York City’s Theatre Row, keeps those famous lines intact… and delivers many more laugh-out-loud moments throughout its running time. Indeed, the play is endearingly dated, as evidenced by the costumes and a few vintage set pieces (a rotary phone, an old-school pocket camera, et cetera…). But most importantly, Gemini is a flashback to when comedy was played for strictly for laughs– and damn the consequences! Yes, there is heart beating underneath the bawdy humor, and we can all relate to the human side of the characters underneath their eccentric personas. But the frequent absurdity of Innaurato’s script reminds us, again, that this show was patently made with the sole purpose of making us chuckle– even as one character threatens suicide and another almost becomes a casualty of an ornery piano. A true piece of “vintage vice”, Innaurato’s piece was written before the dawn of the hyper-sensitivity that would make us feel guilty about laughing at the play’s “politically incorrect” one-liners about ethnicity, class, weight, sexuality, and more. As a result, theater attendees in 2018 will probably find this THIS Gemini more funny than audiences did 41 years ago.
The setting of Gemini is the common space between two adjacent backyards in South Philly. The play opens at 6AM on the day before Francis Geminiani ‘s 21st birthday. Francis (Charlie Reid), home on summer vacation from Harvard, is awoken in his shorty shorts by a cacophony of urban “music”: the garbage trucks, breaking glass, and people yelling in the streets. That’s no competition, however, for the sound of his screechy, trash-talking next-door neighbor, the boozy widow Bunny Weinberger (Ilana Kresch). Francis unsuccessfully tries to cover up the neighborhood noise pollution with Maria Callas records. Soon afterward, the soon-to-be birthday boy finds his already tense world disrupted by the surprise arrival of two Ivy League classmates: the well-to-do WASP brother-sister team of Randy and Judith Hastings (Zane Michael and Canning Robb, respectively) from Boston. Embarrassed by his working class background and his blue-collar dad (David Nikolas), Francis is reluctant to let the siblings stay over– but his father (also named Francis, but called “Fran” for short) insists that the presumably rich “white kids” stay. We learn later that Francis and the posturing intellectual Judith had a fling during the semester, and Judith still harbors an unlikely crush on Francis: She sees through the young man’s sullen disposition and low self-esteem to envision a kindred spirit. (Francis makes constant remarks about how he is “fat”, but given Reid’s trim physique, we have to assume Francis may be suffering from body dysmorphia before there was a name for it.) Francis, however, is resistant to Judith’s affections, partially because… well, he has romantic inclinations towards the blandly attractive Randy. Francis’ sexual feelings culminate with a seduction scene (partially off-stage) that’s more odd than sexy.
Gemini was considered quite bold at the time for having a character who (Gasp!) might actually be gay. But what was even more “revolutionary” was how Fran, the loud but ultimately gentle giant of a father, seemed to be accepting of it. The character’s ambiguous sexuality, however, is secondary to Gemini’s deliciously decadent comedy of excess. (If you want a good Gemini drinking game, do a shot of Bunny’s “horse piss” [Templeton Rye] whenever one of the characters says “They’re good people!”) The play climaxes with the much-anticipated birthday party– complete with cake– which, let’s just say, doesn’t go as well as planned. That said, the scene is a big showcase for Charlie Reid’s Francis, who up until this point was often overshadowed by the more flamboyant characters around him.
The entire cast of Gemini is wonderful. David Nikolas is well cast as the teddy bearish father Fran, who comes on a bit strong but turns out to be a very likable character. As Randy and Judith, Zane Michael and Canning Robb get to play the “straight guys” to the clownish Philly characters, allowing them to use some skillful nuance and restraint in their roles– although it is great fun to watch each of their characters have their moments of LOSING their nuance and restraint as well. Dom Giovanni shows great skill in physical comedy as the asthmatic, childlike Herschel. As Lucille Pompi, Fran’s name-dropping, social climber-wannabe girlfriend, Olivia Jampoi gets to deliver many of the play’s best lines. And of course, there’s Ilana Kresch as Bunny, who steals every scene that she’s in– whether she’s telling a story peppered with F-bombs or showing off her criminal fashion ensembles.
Koy Productions’ Gemini continues through Saturday, November 17th at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. Visit here for tickets and more information.