Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself)

Performance Date: 12.11.09

Cherry Lane Theater

I wish I could do any impression as well as Antoinette LaVecchia can do her mother.  It makes me angry.  These people with parents from other countries are so lucky.  Not only do they possess a natural ear for homeland dialects, but their family stories are so much funnier because they get to use accents.

And accents are funny.  Is that simplistic?  Do I offend?  Well too bad, because it’s true.  Here’s the thing that saves it though – the funny isn’t because of some moronic delight at hearing words pronounced strangely.  The funny is because a spot-on accent is like a fast track to a specific and believable character – and that’s what real funny relies on.  Being specific and believable.

I say this like I’m a comedy expert.  Well I am.  We all are.  We all know what makes us laugh and what doesn’t.  And when someone tries to make us laugh and fails, we all pretty much know why.  We say, it was too much of a shtick, or he’s trying too hard, which basically translates to it wasn’t specific or it wasn’t believable.

Now performing comedy?  That’s a different story.  When it comes to performing comedy, I am squarely at the student level.  Sometimes I succeed at making people laugh, sometimes I don’t.  Yet when I fail – which feels awesome! – I can pretty much always track it down to that same thing.  I wasn’t specific and believable.  Whatever idea was in my head, whatever impulse I had – I didn’t commit one-hundred percent to the truth of it.

Unlike Antoinette LaVecchica, who does commit one-hundred percent to the truth in her one-woman show How to Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself).  Her portrayal of her Italian mother in this show is hysterical.  So complete and whole, so detailed and real, that you immediately get the sense that this must be exactly how her mother really is.  And perhaps I’m off base here, but I do suspect that the character’s accent – which was wonderful to listen to and perfect in the way only family can pull off – really might have been integral to all that wonderful specificity.  I imagine that for Antoinette, replicating the cadence, tone, and vowel sounds of her mother’s dialect must automatically come with corresponding changes to her body, face, and hands.  Or maybe I’m wrong.  But whatever the case may be, it worked.  Her portrayal was specific and believable, and the natural humor of having an overbearing, unrelenting, she loves you so much she wants to kill you for making her worry, old-country Italian mother simply rose to the surface, ready to be skimmed like so much delicious cream. 

Some favorite Mother moments:
  • Her divorced actress daughter doesn’t want curtains for her new apartment.  The mother’s response?  An exasperated clapping together and clasping of her hands up to God, accompanied by her head turned away, eyes closed, and brows furrowed with vexation.

  • After a protracted and infuriating battle of wills, her daughter finally consents to curtains – as long as they are white.  The mother’s response?  A humoring smile and scrunch of her nose, her head tilted and softly shaking, as she says, “No, En-do-nay, you no want white curtains.”  

  • Her daughter lets the machine pick up on the umpteenth phone call that afternoon.  The mother’s response?  To cap her message with the following helpful information, delivered slowly and oh-so-dearly: “My name is Maria.  I am your mother.”
You may have noticed – particularly if the above examples incited shudders of recognition – that specific does not have to mean unique, and believable does not have to mean subtle.  Dear, sweet, horrible Maria is a universal character, as well as larger-than-life, and the frequent knowing laughter from the audience that night testifies that the comedy worked like a charm.


  1. Anna, I love your Year of Plays concept. About accents and corresponding body language--you're right, I can't speak Italian or French without using the accompanying facial and hand expressions. A French example: I have to shrug my shoulders and form a lower lip pout as I say, "Bof!" to visually show that, "I don't care." But, as for your blog, I'd have to say it is, "Belissimo!" with correspondingly enthusiastic hand gestures. :)))

  2. Ha! I love the visual. How perfect. :) Thanks for writing, I'm glad you like the blog. It's good to hear from you!