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2006_07_arts_stonecarver.JPGThere’s no getting around it: Dan Lauria plays the crankiest of cranks in William Mastrosimone’s A Stone Carver (directed by Robert Kalfin). No cute grumpy old man business – Lauria seethes with a grouchiness that more than lives up to his character’s last name, Malatesta. But even other hardened cranks, as well as people who wouldn’t ordinarily sympathize with Malatesta’s predicament, are nonetheless bound to ease up on him a little by the end of the play, and acknowledge that he and the play have by and large managed to rise above its many clichés to give audiences a vivid, humanizing view of a subject that’s often dealt with in the abstract and a man one would normally be keen to avoid.

The surface plot is simple: Malatesta, a retired stone carver, lives in a house that the city wants to tear down in order to build a freeway off-ramp. Citing eminent domain, they’ve served him with multiple notices, all of which he has ignored so that now he is holed up in the place, talking to the rats and to his wife’s ghost. Now his son Raff (Jim Iorio) has come for a last-ditch attempt to get him out, and his fiancée Janice (Elizabeth Rossa) has come along for the ride. Raff and his father haven’t spoken for years; the son left the ancestral family profession in favor of less dirty work as a building contractor, and his father can’t forgive him for that or a host of other transgressions he gleefully reels off as the play proceeds. This tension between father and son, between past and future, the old country and the new, is the thread Mastrosimone really wants to follow; the eminent domain issue, though important, is more to get things going by forcing Raff to visit his father, and then to give him a basis for bemoaning what has become of the world, how nothing is as good as it once was.

Laura lays on the heavy Italian accent for his part, which could be annoying, especially since Malatesta is so crazy and mean that the foreign curses and English malapropisms can’t really endear him to the audience. But with his broad, ruddy face and never-back-down attitude, one is more inclined to respect Malatesta’s outlook and predicament, and to believe Lauria’s presentation of them. Iorio also makes Raff believable and more complex than one might expect; his internal struggles with his family history, and whether he’s made the right choices for his life, play out painfully in grimaces and shouts, as well as more vulnerable moments. As Janice, however, Rossa is the weak link in the play; Mastrosimone has given her lame dialogue to work with, for one, and on top of that Rossa’s delivery is very stilted, almost hokey, so that it’s easy to agree with Malatesta’s scorn for her (he nicknames her “pastasciutta,” dry pasta). He comes to like her by the end, but in my opinion at least she just gets more tiresome as she tries to act Italian. The dynamic between the father and son, on the other hand, does get more interesting as the show plays out and Raff lets go of his initial reluctance to engage with his dad to dredge up old memories and really consider both their lives. Soap operatic it may be at times, but it’s hard not to become invested in their relationship and root for it to improve.

The show would also come off as terribly didactic and obvious if not for the hateful Malatesta and the shift from being concerned with the eminent domain issue to family matters. But he isn’t an obvious proponent of land rights and it takes awhile to grow to like him, and the conflict between these equally stubborn men whose argument extends far back to something very different – though certainly related. For that, and despite the resistance one might put up to the slightly simplistic world view and the trite would-be “words of wisdom” dropped here and there, A Stone Carver does come to win you over with its straightforward little pleasures, and it might even make you think a bit about the thorny topic of eminent domain even if that’s not the real story and even if you already think your opinion on the subject is as firm as Malatesta’s -- and with the issue coming up often in these parts lately, being forced to allow nuance into your views is no bad thing.
Soho Playhouse // 15 Vandam St. // Through Sept. 3, Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. also 2pm, Sun. 3pm // Tickets here