A Conversation With Dan Lauria About The Inspiration For His Play ‘Dinner With The Boys’
Before Dinner With The Boys opened Off Broadway at the Acorn Theatre, I went to a press event for the production where the producer and director introduced the show, its cast and playwright Dan Lauria (Lombardi, Christmas Story, The Musical), who also stars as Charlie. The play is about two wise guys with issues that only Big Anthony Jr. (Ray Abruzzo-“The Sopranos”), can solve after he shows up for a delicious home cooked, mouth watering dinner by Dom (Richard Zavaglia-Donnie Brasco) who is Charlie’s chef roommate. The press event and following conversation with Dan Lauria took place before I saw and reviewed the production. Turns out what I had intuited about the performances was spot on. The show is smashing and I enjoyed the rollicking night of joy and farce that has a number of sardonic twists. You can read my review here on Blogcritics.
Introductory Remarks by the Producer, Director and Playwright
Pat Addiss (Producer): I knew Dan Lauria when he played the lead, Jean Shepherd, in A Christmas Story, The Musical for us. And he told me about this wonderful show that he’d written for Dom DeLuise and Charles Durning and Jack Klugman and he told me how they were all dead. And I asked him if he isn’t getting a message. And he got the message. And he loved Gabe Barabas and SuzAnne Barabas at The New Jersey Repertory. He knew them before I was on the board. And he wanted them to produce this even though we were just a little black box theater. It all happened thanks to Dan and Suzanne and Gabe. Here I am; I’m so lucky that last night I had my own dinner with the boys. We are also going to have a dinner at Tony DiNapoli’s every Tuesday where people can buy tickets and can also buy dinner at Tony DiNapoli’s and have dinner with the boys. I’m very excited about the production, but before I go any further, I’d like to introduce our wonderful director Frank Megna and he can tell us a bit about the play.
Frank Megna (Director): Hello everybody. I was lucky enough to direct the play in Jersey. Dan and I go back to when we first played mafiosos together thirty plus years ago. You played Al Capone and I played a character named Joey Adonis and I walked around without my shirt a lot which back in those days meant something. (laughter) The play is unusual. It’s a surprise. It’s not a typical Sopranos kind of a deal. It’s interesting in exposing some of the links that need to surface and that go on in this world that we’re investigating. I think you’ll have a lot of fun. Now, I’ll introduce Mr. Lauria who wrote it.
Dan Lauria (Playwright): Thanks to all here for their work on the production in New Jersey. This is a very twisted play. (crowd laughs) Like Pat said, it was originally written for my mentor Charlie Durning and for Jack Klugman, Peter Falk and Dom DeLuise. It was actually Dom DeLuise’s idea. To this day the funniest lines are Dom DeLuise’s ad libs, which I take full credit for. (we laugh) I still remember the night we read it and the reaction of Peter Falk who never cracks up. He was saying the lines I wrote. Dom just got up and did this ad lib. Peter just lost it. He looked at the audience and said, (Dan does a perfect Peter Falk imitation), “It doesn’t say that!” I said, “It does now.” So we’re keeping their names alive. It’s really a play about all the violence that we’re consuming. We had a lot of fun and loads of laughs, but the purpose of the play is there’s too much of this gratuitous violence. They’re not even in the genre of horror movies any more. They’re mutilation films. So this spoofs all that. I’m very lucky to have Richard Zavaglia who’s been with us from the beginning. He actually read the narration the first time Charlie and Dom read it. Ray Abruzzo, Little Carmine from “The Sopranos”…he is a chameleon. For him to do what Jack Klugman and Peter Falk did? What a testament for an actor. So that alone is worth the price of the ticket. (we laugh)
After the introductory remarks, I spoke to Dan Lauria about the show.
I’m very happy to see you again. I enjoyed your performances in A Christmas Story, The Musical which was a lot of fun and Lombardi was wonderful.
Dan Lauria: This is totally different than either of those two.
Tell us how it’s different.
Well, for Italians who come to see the show, they either get very offended, or they realize, oh, you’re spoofing the stereotype of kill, eat, curse. Yet, there’s no cursing in the play. People always tell me, “Oh, the language.” And I ask, “What curse?” And they say, “Well…???” There isn’t any. We spoof shows like “The Sopranos,” etc., and usually by the end, all the Italians are like, “Yeah, there should be more plays like this.” So it takes a little while for them to catch on. But like I said initially, it’s really about all the violence we’re consuming. I wanted to write a serious play about that subject. But Dom DeLuise said, “Ah, it will sound preachy. Now, if you make that funny…” So that’s what we did.
You mentioned before, all of these horror flicks that have violence…
Well, not even the horror flicks so much as the mutilation films.
Well, people devouring other people…
Ah, zombies and vampires? Well, this spoofs them. I have an 8-year-old godson and I can’t stand the violence in the video games, like blowing up heads and exploding body parts. So we talk about that in a funny way, but you don’t see any of that. As a matter of fact, the only blood you see in our show is that Ray takes a ketchup bottle and sprays it on the window. And we don’t care if the audience sees it’s ketchup. It’s a joke and it’s a spoof of the blood.
OK, now, what’s the food?
Well, I don’t want to give it away. (we laugh) But there are excellent recipes
Oh, it’s all homemade. Dom, who is played by Richie Zavaglia cooks delicious dinners. The role was supposed to be played by Dom DeLuise. Dom DeLuise was a great chef and he actually gave us some of the ideas for the recipes. As a matter of fact there’s a line about a cacciatore that’s spoken and it’s strictly Dom DeLuise. That was one of his ad libs.
You were close to Dom and Peter Falk?
I was closest to Charles Durning. He was like my Dad and I was close to Jack Klugman. I gave the eulogies at both their funerals. But Peter and Dom I knew very well. It’s a shame when I meet young people who don’t know them.
They may see the TV reruns. But Dom DeLuise was absolutely hysterical. I forget what I saw him in but I was belly laughing. (I remembered later: Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood Men in Tights, 1993)
The first night we read the play…Peter couldn’t read because he was working. So I read the part. But I’m sitting in the wings with Jack Klugman and Jack said, (Dan Lauria does a gravely voiced Jack Klugman imitation here), “Dom DeLuise will say something tonight that will bring down the house that no other actor can say.” And during the reading, Dom literally while he’s hearing this grotesque story, said, “Woof.” And the audience went on the floor. And Jack Klugman said, “No actor you know could say ‘Woof,’ and get a reaction like that.” (Lauria laughs) He was right. And when I wrote it into the script and I sent it to somebody to read, they sent it back to me with notes saying, “What does ‘Woof’ mean?’” (Lauria laughs) I said, “Forget it. We’ll never get it.” (we laugh) That’s how creative he was.
Absolutely adored him. Peter Falk as well.
One of the hardest working actors.
I saw him as a kid in Pocket Full of Miracles. He stole the scenes he was in from the other actors.
That was the Frank Capra movie. Falk was the only one to get nominated for an Academy Award as a supporting actor in that film. Peter told us a story about him and Edward Everett Horton who played the butler. They were shooting the scene where Peter was being helped to put on his coat by the very proper butler played by Horton. It was funny and there were no cuts, so they finished it with the crew laughing. As a matter of fact the first take was ruined because Frank Capra laughed out loud so hard, sound picked it up. Capra said, “I’m sorry boys, let’s do it again.” So they did it again, and it was even funnier. Frank Capra said, “Great, great, but let’s do it again.” And then the third or fourth take, Frank Capra actually put a knot in the sleeve. That’s the one that’s in the movie. And it was hysterical and his own people were rolling in the aisles. Frank Capra said, “Great, great, let’s do it again!” And Peter went up to him and said, (Lauria in a great imitation of Peter Falk), “Frank is there something wrong? I mean why are we doing it again?” And Capra said, “Oh, Peter, I’m going to use the one with the knot in the sleeve, but the crew is enjoying it so much.” Peter said to me, “Frank Capra was the best audience I ever played to.”
Ah, inspired by Capra, he gave a great performance in Pocketful of Miracles. Now, when you were writing Dinner With the Boys, what was the specific conceptualization? You thought, I’m writing something serious…then changed it?
Yes. I was driving Dom DeLuise down to Palm Springs for the Frank Sinatra Golf Tournament. I always play in it every year. And on Friday night Dom was going to do his “stand-up” but we called it the “sit-down,” because he never stood up. He was very funny and he was a good friend of Frank’s. As we’re driving down…previously, I had written something else that he liked. So he asked, What are you working on now?” And I told him I wanted to write about the violence with the kids. This was years ago because you could see it getting worse and worse with the video games. And he said, “Well, it’s going to be too preachy. Now, if you can make fun of consuming violence.” I said, “How would you do that?” He said, “Well, they’ve got to eat violence.” So that triggered the idea, and then as I wrote it with him and Charlie in mind, it just developed.
I’d like to think they’re watching.
We put it in the program that every performance is dedicated to them.
Now, from what part of Italy is your heritage?
Well, I don’t think Lauria is my real last name. I think it’s Signorelli. But my father’s family was from the heel, the town of Lauria. So it’s the Corleone thing. (Dan is referring to how immigrants were given the names of the towns where they came from since the officials couldn’t pronounce or spell Italian names that looked too complicated, like in the film The Godfather II) But my mother was from Naples. She would say, “We’re the cooks.”
I assumed you might be Neapolitan.
When my mother met Joe Mantegna, she said, “Where are your people from?” Joe said, “Well, my mother’s from Calabria.” And my mother knocked on her head. (the Calabrians are reputed to be hard headed). And he said, “Well, my father’s from Sicily.” And my mother said, “Oh, you’re half Italian.” (we laugh) Joe and I still get a laugh out of remembering that when he comes to my apartment.
Do you keep the traditions going or not? Well, with the food, I imagine. Have you gone to Italy?
No, I’ve never taken a vacation like that. I’ve never been to Europe. I haven’t taken a day off.
Do you want to go?
Yeah, I will if I get the chance or get a job over there. I don’t really vacation, I just work. Charlie Durning did that. This is my approximately 60th-something play.
(PR is signaling me to wrap up the interview) A feat in itself. Hopefully you’ll be able to travel to Europe at some point.
Of course. Well, maybe we can get an English speaking company over there because this play would do very, very well.
They would adore it.
They would catch it right away that we’re spoofing that stereotype.
Do you speak Italian?
Very little. My mom did. I can understand it more than I can speak it.
Well, good luck with the play I’m sure the New Jerseyites are following you over here and continuing the fun from New Jersey Rep.
Yeah, we had some really fun nights there.
Dinner With The Boys is at Theatre Row, the Acorn Theater, 410 42nd Street. The production is continuing there for another month including VIP Tuesdays and Nonna Wednesdays. The show is in a limited run and will end on Sunday, July 5th. It’s a feast of fun. Enjoy it before the run concludes.