Dallas — What do you get when a couple of lovebird entrepreneurs open a precious little cannoli shop in a North Boston Italian neighborhood with an entrenched mafia of pastry restaurants?
You get Pastry King, a new play by Scott Zenreich, onstage at the Wyly Theatre Sixth Floor Studio Theatre. The play is presented in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, which allows for smaller organizations and individual artists to use the smaller ATTPAC spaces for theater, music and dance projects.
Directed with a light hand and infectious good humor by Rhonda Boutté, the play celebrates the true love of childhood sweethearts launching a small business selling delicious cannoli based on a recipe derived from a sublime version they ate on their honeymoon in Sicily. Events literally roll on out from there.
Leo (a thoughtful, serious-minded Clay Wheeler) and Julia (a bouncy, exuberant Ana Hagedorn) are setting up their cheery shop on Hanover Street, the fabled realm of traditional, long-established Italian restaurants. We're all seated at cozy tables or stage-side risers beside scenic designer Seancolin Hankins' bright kitchen, equipped with tall wood tables and shiny metal cooking gear on a spotless black-and-white tiled floor. Behind them, a huge display window glows below a white brick facade, as Leo and Julia dance romantic to a jazz station the night before opening.
Enter the title troll: Don the Pastry King (bearded, beady-eyed and perfectly villainous Jeremy Schwartz at the performance reviewed; he has since left the play because of an injury, and has been replaced by Paul Taylor). He knocks on the door and introduces himself as the neighbor with a shop "down the street." Of course, the nosey old guy shrugs off a shop devoted to the lone "perfect cannolo." That's singular of cannoli, as Leo regularly points out, for the famed confection constructed from goat cheese, etc., and wrapped in an irresistible dough recipe fried fresh and eaten on the spot. Don responds by bragging on and on about the apparently endless menu of pastries all ending in a vowel.
As Julia and Leo labor long and joyfully and get fantastic reviews from local restaurant critics, the jealous Pastry King launches an ambitious TV ad campaign, which we see on triple screens above the shop window. Videographer H. Bart McGeehon projects the determined, wickedly smiling visage of the pissed-off proprietor pushing his pastries at bargain rates to undercut the hot new competition. Schwartz, a veteran actor with a bag of tricks assembled over years of onstage encounters, is maybe even more hilarious twitching his eyebrows on large screen video than right in front of us. Either way, his smiling, faux weapon-wielding villain is both a threat and a hoot, particularly when appearing in costume designer Korey Kent's red velvet robes and grand golden crown.
As customers line the block to eat Leo and Julio's heavenly cannoli, weird, nasty things start happening at the shop. What's this all about? Who's to blame? What's to be done? You cannot possibly guess the sweeping resolution to this mix of sugar and spice and some crazy ingredients not nearly as nice.
Before the night is done, Leo has demonstrated, via a cooking show chat, a secret recipe for ricotta, and shared his sweetly comic insight on what wins a woman's heart with amorous young Chris (shyly handsome Spencer Roberts), his teenage delivery guy who plays the sax between scenes because he wants to become a professional musician. A neighborhood kid (Peter Pan-dashing William Bartell) with a gift for storytelling explains it all for you in a wildly improbable revelation combining catastrophe movies and fairy tale fantasy. Kudos to clever puppet designer Allen Dean who reimagines the weary PowerPoint presentation to charming comic effect. Can love and pastry survive such an onslaught?
To find out, you have to climb the stairs (or take the elevator!) to the darkened studio lobby of the theater where Boutté has set up a giant projection of the Boston restaurant district we're about to enter. But first, grab your crisp, freshly made cannolo, thanks to pastry chef Nina Angelilli Conoley, the playwright's inspiration. Sweet beginnings to a playful evening full of surprises and a superb villain who gets what's coming to him.