Dick Zigun’s The Education of Al Capone As If Told by Jimmy Durante opens at Coney Island USA tonight. I caught it in previews last weekend and can’t say enough good things about it. And ya know I’m shooting straight because I saw it in an earlier incarnation, and, ay-yi-yi. But this time out Dick’s assembled all the elements for a most enjoyable time. His pop-culture inspired avant-garde writing is always my cup of tea, and in this production he has assembled a TERRIFIC cast to help sell it: Rob Romeo of Twisted Circus and Cabaret as Jimmy Durante, frequent Funhouse Philosopher Nikos Brisco as Frankie Yale, veteran Brooklyn character actor Robert Aloi as Frank Gallucio and other roles, musical theatre pro Natalie Michaels as Clara Bow, and young ‘uns Will Thomae (Al Capone) and Rita Posillico (various roles). The show has no less than two entertaining piano players (Romeo and Posillico), all manner of fisticuffs and gunplay, a boxing match, jokes, Tin Pan Alley songs, and lots of fantasy alternative history.
Basically Zigun took several true facts about the Coney Island of a century ago, tied them together and asked “What if?” Al Capone got his scar in Coney; Clara Bow used to work at Nathan’s; Durante used to perform in saloons there. Who knows if they ever crossed paths? Plus he has a great deal of fun in making Frankie Yale the proprietor of the Harvard Inn, filling the show with Ivy League references and transplanting all that to the world of gangsters, which in the case of the Skull and Bones Society isn’t much of a stretch. In one of the highlights of the evening, each audience member gets his own personal one-on-one abuse session with Frankie Yale in Skull and Bones — basically like having 60 second monopoly ownership of Don Rickles. And in case you were wondering, Romeo’s Durante impression totally passes muster, and he does several tunes from the Schnozolla’s songbag. So there is no shortage of legit-style enjoyment to be had, even amidst Zigun’s patented dream-like strangeness.
Dick’s work reminds me a lot of accounts of the earliest Off-Off-Broadway work, like the Living Theatre’s legendary production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection. As a matter of intentional aesthetics it is casually paced and muddy; there’s no fourth wall; audience and players are in the same space, the same world, the same story. I love to watch fellow audience members watch his plays, because they always wear a child-like smile. You can see them actively wondering what is going to happen next, because it is guaranteed to be something off centered and weird. His casts usually mix community theatre people with Broadway style professionals and variety artists. Cast and audience alike are obliged to say “Yes” to a very strange journey…not unlike the one you take when you embark on an amusement park dark ride. There’s no backing out. Either enjoy yourself or cover your eyes. Hence the name of his company “Funhouse Philosophers”. It is just like a thought provoking funhouse.
I was even enjoying myself at the pre-show. This year I did much additional research on Coney, including the saloon culture, which I had previously known less about. There were ways it was a lot like Times Square. Guys would do a bally to get you into a saloon, just like they do now at the Gentleman’s Clubs and stand-up comedy joints. There was that vibe in the simulated Harvard Inn prior to curtain. I ordered my promised “Warm Beer and Lousy Pasta” — and it was delivered! The steep cost ($5) for what you get (a few swallows of lager and about four forkfuls of cold spaghetti with no sauce) is the kind of post-modern joke only Dick Zigun can make, and only someone with a Frankie Yale scale temper could get upset about it. Wildly overpriced puny portions of horrible food is a Coney Island tradition! But also keep in mind that Coney Island USA is a not-for-profit arts organization; make that purchase in the spirit of a donation and all will be right with the world. (Amusingly, I may be the only person in the audience of this entire run who would actually eat and enjoy such a meal; I had literally had leftover cold spaghetti with no sauce for breakfast the day I caught the show. No word of a lie!)
Speaking of Coney’s not-for-profit status: one last thing. Tomorrow, after this show’s 4pm matinee performance, Coney is having their Fall Benefit called “Raise the Roof”. If you’re Coney crazy like I am you should do both events in one shot! The benefit starts at 7. Details on that are here.