Although he has written more than a dozen works for the stage, John Patrick Shanley is best known to the general public as the author of the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1987 film, Moonstruck. There he explores the themes that occupy most of his theater work: the poetry of workaday life and the arduous absurdities of love among the ordinary people of New York City.
This focus on the urban milieu reflects his own background. Born in the Bronx in 1950, Shanley served in the U.S. Marines before completing his undergraduate degree at New York University in 1977. He began writing plays at age 26, but had to support himself as a housepainter while waiting for his work to be recognized. He first achieved success with Off-Off Broadway productions of such plays as Welcome to the Moon (1982), Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (1984), and Savage in Limbo (1985). See more about Shanley here.
With Moonstruck, Shanley created what Frank Rich of The New York Times called a "sentimental vision of ethnic urban romance." Essentially a continuation of the themes and ideas of his earlier plays, Moonstruck, with its box-office success and the prestige of an Academy Award, gave Shanley the freedom to undertake virtually any project that interested him. This turned out to be Italian American Reconciliation, his first theatrical undertaking after winning the Oscar.
Not only did he write the script for this play, but he also took over as director after firing the first person hired for the job. Actress Jayne Haynes, his second wife, was Shanley's choice for the role of Janice, the female spitfire whose violent behavior toward her former husband, Huey, provoked the estrangement that must be reconciled by these Italian-Americans.
According to Shanley, who was divorced from his first wife some five years before writing and directing this play, "I was not married to an Italian woman, and I am not Italian. And the relationship that is described is not the relationship that I had. But on a very deep emotional level, it is the same."
What is "the same" according to Shanley is the way both real-life and fictional marriages highlight "the enormously difficult task of becoming a man in our society." Shanley has subtitled the play "A Folktale," suggesting that this story, grown from the seed of purely private experience, has developed into a tale of universal significance.
For Shanley, rehearsing a play like Italian American Reconciliation is therefore an attempt "to summon down a great spirit, to erect a lighting rod, to build a giant radio, which is only complete when the audience comes in. . . . The spirits will come through you. . . . It's the feeling of being inside a mystery."
Italian American Reconciliation immediately acknowledges that its setting is in a theater before a live audience. Aldo Scalicki, one of the play's main characters, begins the performance by entering "through the audience" and directly addressing the spectators, much like a stand-up comedian. He directs personal comments to various audience members ("Here's a quarter." "Where'd you get that shirt?"), identifies his girlfriend in the house and orders her to leave, and refers to his mother who is present for the show. Above all, he informs the spectators that he is "here tonight to teach you something. You wanna think of it that way, you're my class." To this class, he says, he will tell a story that will illustrate certain principles about the nature of love that everyone will find wise and illuminating.
As Aldo concludes his direct-address patter, he moves from the audience to the stage, at which point the setting segues from the theater building itself to the fictive world behind the proscenium. We move from stand-up comedy to drama as we enter the lives of Aldo's lovesick friend, Huey, his current girlfriend, Teresa, and his ex-wife, Janice.
This world is divided into three separate locations: Pop's Soup House; Huey's apartment; and "the rear of Janice's house." All are in Little Italy, a lower-Manhattan neighborhood of narrow, densely-populated streets, colorful bars and restaurants, and the pungent sights and sounds of immigrant Italian culture.
To outsiders, Little Italy has always been more a romantic urban idea than an everyday place to live and work. The visitor to Little Italy is impressed by the card games in the dark social clubs; by the gaudy religious festivals; by the gruff waiters in the earthy restaurants; by the sinister shadows of "wiseguys" present and past. There the outsider expects to find people who are also exotic, larger than life, more vivid, more emotional, more authentic than the rest of us who live on all those boring streets elsewhere in the city.
Shanley, an Irish Catholic, is just such an outsider, infatuated by the mystique of Little Italy. Many an Irish-American feels a kind of cultural envy of his Italian co-religionists. On the Irish side there is northern pallor, bad food, and sexual puritanism. The Italians on the other hand are bronzed by the sun, flushed with wine and pesto, and alive to the music of love. True or false, these are the conventional ethnic stereotypes, and Shanley draws freely on them in this play, set in a Little Italy that is more myth than reality.
Aldo Scalicki and Huey Bonfigliano have long been best-friends. When Huey disappears from his usual haunts, Aldo seeks him out and finds him dressed "in a very poetic white shirt with billowing sleeves, jodhpurs and embossed royal blue slippers." Seated at a table in his apartment, Huey is listening to Puccini on a music box while writing bad poetry.
Aldo discovers that his friend is wearing his odd costume in an attempt capture the romantic spirit necessary for carrying out a difficult enterprise he is about to undertake. Huey longs to reconcile with his ex-wife, Janice, a difficult woman who shot her husband's dog and eventually aimed a pistol at him, driving him to divorce. Despite this turbulent past, however, Huey can't get Janice out of his mind, and firmly believes that "everything is over for me unless I go back and fix this broken place."
He has a plan for making this happen. He will first break up with his current girlfriend, Teresa, a beautiful, loving, good-natured woman who is also an excellent cook. Then Aldo, as Huey's emissary, will visit the choleric Janice to "pave the way" for him. Janice, Huey reasons, will discharge her wrath on Aldo, leaving her in a calmer frame of mind for the conciliatory conversation her ex-husband longs for.
Aldo is aghast at his friend's intentions. He feels that Huey is preparing "the disaster of [his] life," but nonetheless, in the name of friendship, he agrees to go along with the plan.
We next encounter Teresa and Aunt May in Pop's Soup House, where Teresa works behind the counter. Aunt May, a widow, is the neighborhood wise-woman, experienced and knowing in the ways of the world and the heart. A tearful Teresa tells May that she has decided to "call it quits" with Huey because he has been permanently crippled by his marriage to Janice: "She treated him like a dog. Now he looks at all women like they're her. He can't feel when somebody treats him good."
Just as she has steeled herself for the confrontation with Huey, he arrives to break off with her. Stunned, Teresa cannot understand why Huey would want to return to a woman who hates him. "Cause if she really didn't love me ever," Huey explains, "then I feel so ugly like I could never never be loved by anyone. If she really didn't love me at all, I think I'd kill myself." Huey exits to pursue his quixotic love-quest, leaving Teresa in tears, wondering at his stupidity.
At this point Aldo arrives at the Soup House to reveal that he has concocted an alternative to Huey's scenario of reconciliation. Instead of drawing fire from Janice, he has decided to seduce her: "I'm gonna make her mine. I'm gonna drive any image of Huey from her thoughts. In this way, I'm going to save my friend." Following this announcement, the first act moves to its close, with May wishing she could be "a fly on the wall" during the coming encounter between Janice and Aldo.
As Act II begins, we find Janice on her balcony with Aldo down below wooing. "How 'bout I come up stairs and we rip up the bed a little bit?" asks Aldo, a post-romantic Romeo. In response to which Janice, a Juliet from hell, fires a gun at him. Aldo's plan is in tatters.
Instead of seducing Janice, Aldo learns that she is "her own castle of thorns," that on her honeymoon with Huey she became enraged at his infatuation with her, feeling that he wasn't really seeing her, but some erotic daydream of a wife who existed only in his own fantasies. And so, she says, "I started doing things to make him see. Like you pinch somebody to wake them up. I yelled at him. I gave him bad food to eat. I slapped his face." She also shot his dog, and ultimately shot at Huey himself.
On the heels of these revelations Huey arrives, primed for reconciliation. Aldo leaves the two ex-mates alone, and they proceed to confront the gulf that lies between them. Finally Huey pleads for Janice to make one concession:
Whatever things mighta become, however things mighta gone wrong or not worked out, please don't take away from me that I loved you, that I married you, that to look at you and to be with you was the pleasure of my life.
Hearing this cry for acknowledgement, Janice finally comes down from her balcony to kiss Huey and end the scene.
The next scene returns to the soup house. Aldo arrives to learn from May, now behind the counter, that the much-abused Teresa has decamped for Canada. He opens his heart to May, telling her that relations between men and women have deteriorated into distrust and mutual antipathy, "like we're all doin some kinda politics here, an love ain't politics an shouldn't be." May counsels him with words of wisdom telling him that "you're gonna have to forgive those specific women and throw away your book of fear. You're gonna haveta open your heart an leave it open."
Finally Huey arrives, a changed man. Although he and Janice have no plans to renew their relationship, they have, in some important way, reconciled. "Last night she gave me back . . . what was. I feel strong again." Huey leaves to recover from the emotional stresses of recent days, and Aldo turns to the audience once again, as at the beginning of the play, to take them into his confidence. "So here's the lesson," he tells his "class,":
"In the end you are dead. In the middle, you can love. . . . The greatest, the only success is to be able to love."
Aldo leaves to meet his girlfriend, and the lights shift to Huey seated in his apartment where he has a vision of Janice "with gentle mischief in her eye." "God," the ex-husband says to his difficult ex-wife, "I'm going to miss you." And with this exchange the play ends.
Everyone in Italian American Reconciliation is baffled and beset by the pangs of love.
Aldo. As Aldo tells Huey, he suffers from "the sickness of bein a man, the stupid son of a stupid father. I got things in me I gotta fix between me and men, before I even get to the women." Like many characters in modern American plays, Aldo is blocked by his father's failure to make meaningful emotional connections with his son, a pattern evident in works from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to Sam Shepard's True West.
Not only is he emotionally blocked in his relationships with his own sex, but Aldo is also wary of women. As he tells Aunt May, "There are women out there, wild troubled women, and they are trying to kill or damage the shit out of men. . . . It's the Wild West out there."
Handicapped by an inept father, intimidated by the opposite sex, he is emotionally paralyzed—afraid of marriage, yet longing for connection. As Aunt May shrewdly observes, "you are upset because you are in a situation. You wanna get married, but you are not ready to get married."
It is therefore both ironic and appropriate that Aldo is the character who proclaims the play's central teaching, that "the only success is to be able to love." Ironic, because this sentiment comes out of the mouth of a man who thus far in his life has been incapable of acting on it. Appropriate, because such a man--deprived of life's central joy--would understand with special depth the truth of what he is saying.
There seems to be at least a glint of hope for Aldo at the play's end as he prepares to rendezvous with his current girlfriend at P.J. Clarke's, a well-known New York bar. "She and I have a certain history," he says, "Very stupid, fulla trouble. I'm gonna try not to worry that she might kill me, but we'll see. We will see." Ever open to possibility, but also ever aware of the danger of love, Aldo ends by summing himself up as, "Always the Prince, never the King." Which is to say, forever waiting to step into the daunting shoes of adulthood.
Huey. Huey is in many ways Aldo's opposite. Where Aldo is cautious and wary in matters of love, Huey is headlong and careless. Aldo is frightened of women "like bombs," while Huey flings himself at his ex-wife, Janice, a bombshell if ever there was one, the killer of his dog, and the attempted assassin of her own husband.
Huey exhibits his romantic recklessness in the costume he wears, an absurdly improbable outfit of billowing shirt, jodhpurs, and blue slippers. Thus dressed, he embarks on the hopeless, but poetic, quest to reconcile with his incendiary ex-wife.
His romantic nature is responsible for the paralysis he feels as a result of his divorce from Janice. So deeply was he committed to the idea of loving her that the end of their marriage has effectively ended his life as a man. As he says to Janice in explanation of his outlandish wardrobe,
I got all these items about myself like these clothes. Ideas I had that never came to nothing, lyin in my head like balls a dust. A lotta ways I started to go that I never went cause I didn't have enough of a base. It's like you haveta have a certain amount a power . . . to go all the way down one road, and I have never gotten together that much power. I mean lately. I mean, since we got divorced.
In his naked neediness, he even takes Janice's killing of his dog as a compliment because, as he reveals to her, "at least you made a fuss over me. I was pretty starved for anything by that time." Something about the depth of his pain lures Janice down from her balcony, and she kisses Huey in an act of reconciliation that restores "his strength as a man." They won't remarry, but they have made peace, and for Huey this is a way of getting "her back. Kind of. Somethin of her." A partial victory, but, for this man who wears his heart on his sleeve, enough to allow him to begin living again.
Janice. Janice occupies a virtual pedestal throughout most of her time on stage. Until the final moments of her scene, she is standing on her balcony, holding herself aloof from the men below, an object of desire, fear, mystery, and confusion.
Janice cultivates this enigmatic identity, as we can see in her perverse antiphon with Aldo:
ALDO. Beautiful night.
She is a walking repudiation of conventional sentiment, a discordant note persistently sounded against the music of romantic love. In fact Aldo sees in her, "a fiend. Your eyes look like vampire vulture monster fiend eyes."
She finally reveals to Aldo the reasons why she shows such a threatening face to the world. "I am my castle of thorns," she says, identifying herself with her prickliness, because none of the men in her life has ever seen her as she truly is--not her father who "didn't love" her, and especially not Huey. "It started to make me mad that he wasn't seein me. So I started to do things to make him see. Like you pinch somebody to wake them up." In striving to be noticed--to be taken for herself--she has become a prisoner of her own thorny contrariness.
She berates Huey, decked out in his lover-boy costume, for being "so wrapped up in your ideas about how things should be, you've never really looked at me." It is only when she forces Huey to see her as other than his own romantic fantasy that their reconciliation can take place. They will never be lovers again, but at least the violent revulsion on her part, and the pathetic longing on his will come to an end.
Teresa. Just as Huey and Aldo are temperamental opposites, so are Janice and Teresa, in everything from their attitudes to romance to their skills as cooks. She sums up the paradox of her relationship with Huey in a single speech:
You treat me like a criminal because this other woman gave you abuse. . . . I have been loving you and you have been treating me like you have the right to what I'm giving you. You've been treatin my affection like some kinda torture you've been puttin up with. Like we was in the last days of a bad marriage.
Despite their differences, then, Teresa, like Janice, feels that her man fails to see and appreciate her, and that he is instead obsessed with an illusion, in this case the illusion of his lost wife's love. When she sees that Huey is determined to follow through on his mad project of reconciliation, she sadly but firmly dismisses him:
If you get back with Janice, you'll be as sorry as a man can be. She don't love you an she don't mean you good like I do. . . . Then get outta here. . . . You can't have it all ways. . . . Go.
Rejected by the foolish Huey despite her virtues, she makes it clear that she will stand up for her own dignity: "I have feelings, you know. I've got pride, an a sh**load of other stuff, too." And so she quits her job at the soup restaurant, and goes off to Canada. As the play ends, a sadder but wiser Huey will, as Aldo tells us, "go and claim Teresa. Now whether or not Teresa is gonna go along with being claimed like a package from the post office, I don't know. . . ."
So like the other characters in this play, Teresa's romantic future remains a question mark.
May. Amid the agitated young lovers and would-be lovers of this play stands May, a maternal figure who is older, wiser, and more experienced in the ways of the heart than the others. She has gone through love's joy and pain, and she feels she will "never have the courage to be that stupid again." She is conscious of her role as seer--"I do wonder why I've been through the things I've been through. If all this stuff I remember is wisdom"--though she ironically undercuts herself when she concedes her knowledge may only be "lint."
May is the kind of character often referred to as the "raisonneur," that is the one who offers the reasonable perspective on events that others view through the distorting lenses of passion, self-interest, or folly. The raisonneur often represents the views of the playwright, and often makes sententious pronouncements on matters of principle or common sense. Thus: "marriage is trouble,"; and "Any woman ends up with you's gotta man who's gonna compare her to his mother. And that's always a bitch"; and "you're gonna have to forgive those specific women and throw away your book of fear."
May stands steadfast amid the storms of emotion that sweep over the other characters because she has been through it all before; she knows what to expect, and she understands that the price of love is trouble, but that love is worth the price.
Italian American Reconciliation is a play that is in love with love. There is nothing in this dramatic universe that is not focused on and animated by the forces of passion, folly, hope, and despair that surround sexual romance. What we are shown is that love is treacherous, difficult, even dangerous, but that there is no living without it. That in fact is the explicit lesson Aldo wants the audience to learn: "The greatest, the only success, is to be able to love."
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why is Huey obsessed with Janice?
2. Why does Aldo have a hard time falling in love?
3. Why does Teresa love Huey?
4. Why is Janice such a difficult personality?
5. Why did she shoot Huey's dog?
6. Do you think Teresa will return to Huey?
7. Do you agree with Aldo that "the only success is to be able to love?"
8. What other kinds of success are not included in this view?
9. Can we see more than one kind of love in the play? Does love only refer to romantic attraction between people?
10. Can you name other writers who have praised the virtues of love? Why should love be praised? Does it offer anything besides pleasure?