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Wiseguy Elegy: Last Exit to Queens

Ed Rampell: As in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, in Vig Burt Young plays a character named “Big Joe”, who’s gory, glory wiseguy days are behind him.
Burt Young and Gareth Williams (Photos: Ed Kreiger)

Burt Young and Gareth Williams (Photos: Ed Kreiger)

THE LAST VIG Theater Review

The last time I went to the Zephyr Theatre I saw Karen Black - Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces - in Moses Supposes (who, alas, has since faded to black…). Now, Burt Young, another icon of ’70s movies who was Oscar-nommed for playing Paulie in Rocky, is co-starring at the Melrose Avenue playhouse in The Last Vig, written and directed by David Varriale. Like myself, Young was born in Queens and he has made a career out of being a sort of “professional Italian-American” - not only in the lucrative Rocky film franchise but in pictures like 1971’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America, etc. (Autograph hounds with Sharpies, movie stills, posters and the like in hand haunted the Zephyr’s exterior, hoping to get Young’s John Hancock.)

As in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, in Vig Young plays a character named “Big Joe”, who’s gory, glory wiseguy days are behind him. The aging mob boss’ royal realm has been reduced to the backroom (or basement?) of General Li’s Ho Ho Chinese Kitchen, a takeout joint operated by Paul Li (Clint Jung of the 2013 biopic Jobs and the Showtime series Ray Donovan) in Ozone Park, about a mile or two from where I grew up in Queens. The entire onstage action all takes place on the same day in this diminutive domain (realistically rendered by set designer Joel Daavid), where Young’s would-be duke (or Duce) endeavors to preside over what may well be his final underworld transaction.

To execute this undertaking Big Joe recruits longtime crime world associate Jimmy D. Although in this role Gareth Wiliams seems like a Mafioso straight out of central casting, the Uta Hagen-trained thesp actually has a wide range of stage and screen parts, including stints on the boards of Manhattan’s Public Theatre and La Mama, on the big screen in 20th Century Women and on the small screen in Dawson’s Creek, This is Us and Masters of Sex, as well as in the crime series The Shield and Hawaii Five-O. Williams is completely convincing as the henchman on the comedy-drama’s last mission, while Bocce (Ben Adams) likewise realistically plays Big Joe’s loyal, youthful Man Friday.

Vig’s first act has a slice of life feel with naturalistic dialogue - although that doesn’t necessarily mean this is dramatized in a heightened sense for the stage. While ticket buyers may feel they are flies on the wall listening in on actual conversations, there’s nothing especially dramatic - or funny - about the often mundane lines delivered by mostly male actors. Young speaks very softly and turns in a nuanced performance as a crime kingpin who has seen better days. From time to time we listen in on Big Joe’s phone conversations with his ailing, bed-ridden wife Rose Marie, although this reviewer couldn’t tell whether or not Lizzie Peet’s nagging voice was prerecorded or spoken by her live offstage. But it doesn’t really matter as there’s nothing particularly interesting to listen to in her complaints about her health and finances, although to be fair it does contribute to building Act Two.

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Gareth Williams, Bruce Nozick, Ben Adams

Gareth Williams, Bruce Nozick, Ben Adams

The second act does pay off, with the intrusion of Detective Ray Price (Bruce Nozick, who appeared in Rogue Machine’s Ovation-nommed 2016 Honky and in TV series including Weeds and Masters of Sex) into Big Joe’s “kingdom” - a notion that he scoffs at. Nozick’s corrupt cop steals the scene (and more), livening up what had been up to his entrance a decidedly low key theatrical experience. The NYPD plainclothesman apparently is not of Italian ancestry, which, if I am correct in that assumption, is essential to Vig’s plot and theme.

Much has been made in the presidential election cycle of the displacement of the white working class. Price’s brash disruption, as well as the interaction of General Li, presumably an immigrant who quite cleverly literally gets the last word, indicates that The Last Vig is really about the upending of the not-so-Big Joe’s world, the has-been whacker’s social order and stratum. A new world ethnic order is overthrowing the Italian-American old guard, as new waves of immigration sweep once lily-white (and olive-skinned) bastions in Queens. Viewed within this context, Young’s soft-spoken, subtle performance as a man well past his prime actually makes perfect sense.

The Last Vig’s crafty program is designed like the menu at a Chinese restaurant. However, the Ho Ho’s address is listed as Astoria, Queens - not Ozone Park, which I believe is the neighborhood Young mentions onstage (and where my former girlfriend Alice was from). For some strange reason, the menu/playbill also omits a bio for Varriale, the writer/director of The Last Vig, its title referring to some obscure financial term. In any case, this play may be best for diehard fans of Rocky’s brother-in-law, who can enjoy seeing the actor who played Paulie perform live onstage - one of the joys of L.A.’s unique theater scene.

The Last Vig runs through Feb. 19 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays and Mondays at 7:00 p.m. at The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue (between Vista and Gardner), L.A., CA 90046. Info: (323)960-7712;www.TheLastVig.com/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell