When asked the question, “What is the craziest thing that ever happened to you?” most wouldn’t think of family shouting matches around the dinner table. After all, family bickering is normal, right? Not so for the main character in Perfectly Normel People. His answer to the “craziest thing” question brings us a good-humored story of family and belonging, with enough antics to keep the audience laughing until the end.
Written by husband-and-wife duo Judy and Thomas Burke Heath, the comedy takes place in Queens in the early ’80s as college freshman Hadley (Bronson Taylor) makes the move from Kansas to the big city. When complications arise with his NYU dorm assignment, Hadley finds himself living off-campus with an Italian-American family, the Normellinos.
The show is a memory play, in which the adult Hadley (Sean X. Marino) walks the audience through the various shenanigans he endured while living with the New York family. The comedy that ensues has the makings of any good ’80s sitcom, complete with amusing family bickering, puny one-liners, and a hug-it-out ending. Sure, it may be a little predictable, but what good sitcom isn’t?
Widow and family matriarch Connie Normellino (Paulette Bertolami) welcomes Hadley into the home as if he were family, immediately offering up home cooking, goodnight kisses, and a front row seat for family squabbles, most of which come from her two grown children Johnny (Thomas Burke Heath) and Angela (Lara Allred.) The obvious culture clash between the wide-eyed Hadley and the fast-talking, swearing Normellinos had the packed house of the Footlight Theater in stitches. Allred and Heath’s delivered spot-on New York accents along with gestures and facial expressions evocative of a good Jersey Shore episode, minus the tans.
Actor Tripp Hamilton brought the most laughs in his role as the Normellinos’ cousin and loveable nitwit, Frankie. When he wasn’t seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary, he was often mixing up words (claiming attention delinquency disorder) while helping Johnny acclimate Hadley to city life. A particularly memorable scene brought plenty of guffaws when the two tried to teach Hadley the “Italian strut.”
Like most families, the real action took place around the kitchen table. Thankfully it was one of the few pieces of furniture against a black curtain that made up the sparse set on stage. While some of these mealtime conversations seemed to drag out without moving the plot along, others left the audience giggling at shouted one-liners like Connie’s, “Why are we talking about sperm at my table?” The bickering took up most of the first act, but the audience seemed able to relate, laughing along when the family resorted to light fisticuffs and the old classic: food throwing.
More serious underlying themes emerge in the second act when the feud between Connie and her sister-in-law Margaret (Jacqualine Helmer) starts to divide the family. Meanwhile, Hadley falls for the Normellinos’ cousin Bernadette (Katie Holland), and they hatch a plan to reconcile the family with the help of Pops (Ross Magoulas), who is said to suffer from CHS, can’t hear shit.
Between the jokes, the characters briefly delve into the topics of overcoming grief and the search for one’s soul mate, but all is resolved seamlessly, maybe a little too seamlessly, by the end of the two-hour show. And any lingering questions are wrapped up in a final where-are-they-now spiel given by the adult Hadley.
Though the play takes place in 1981, you wouldn’t know it except for the few ’80s musical references and side ponytails thrown in for good measure. The lack of over-the-top fashion was a bit disappointing, but highlighted the timelessness of the play’s topic. After all, I’m sure the same comic situations are playing out in Queens today, and based on the audience’s knowing nods and laughter, here in the Lowcountry, too.
This second production written and directed by the Heaths is sure to satisfy audience members this Spoleto season with some comic relief from their own family squabbles. If nothing else, the play assures that when it comes to family, there’s no such thing as normal.