Feasting With Goombas

At Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, marriage is a giddy affair.

Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street Through December 31
Tickets.com (216-241-6000) or www.playhousesquare.com.
Lisa Ray and Ray Ficca make a great, grating couple.
Lisa Ray and Ray Ficca make a great, grating couple.
Normally, it is customary for the bride and groom, returned from romping at the falls and satiated with pickle forks and toasters, to issue thank-you notes to their wedding guests.

However, Tony and Tina have been so occupied plighting their troth in the worst possible taste, eight times a week since 1985, that they lack the wherewithal to lick a stamp, let alone attend to the social niceties.

Cleveland, a city famous for being the last to hop on any bandwagon, from disco to 3-D IMAX movies, has at last acquired its own production of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. This wildly lucrative Twilight Zone-like aberration, direct from everywhere, has played in over 30 cities and is known in the trade as "interactive theater." It concerns an ever-recurring wedding and reception, where audiences are expected to check their pretensions to good taste at the portals of "Vinnie Black's Sanctuary of Love." Here, audiences in the role of guests can savor generations of nuptial faux pas by a rowdy 30-member cast, who elevate vulgarity to the level of art.

It's an evening that delights in socking protocol in the kisser. In a world where one can do the chicken dance without shame, get pinched on the derriere by a swizzled nun, and constantly have to duck in the midst of a bimbo eruption, it seems appropriate to further goose etiquette and send the Tony 'n' Tina company a thank-you from the guests. First, a word of gratitude to Playhouse Square for rescuing the Hanna once again from oblivion. If it's not filled with something that approximates its glory days, such as John Barrymore in Hamlet, at least the hallowed boards are now vibrating with the sound of genuine heartfelt laughter.

Though old enough to sprout a beard, Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding has come into its own as a corny aphrodisiac for voyeuristic audiences. Shrewdly mixing elements of soap opera and Candid Camera, it offers torrid snatches of staged affairs, gay and straight. For guests, whether they're walking to the john or heading to the cloakroom, there's always the delicious possibility of encountering some form of staged deviant behavior juicy enough to make the columns.

The evening is permeated in a comic-strip surrealism, part Li'l Abner, part Mad magazine: a bride in tennis shoes, chomping on bubble gum with cowlike fervor; caterer Vinnie Black, in his leopard tux, telling jokes older than the Sphinx when not bawling out his mentally deficient offspring; shiny-haired thugs with their brains in their biceps, flirting with fluttering females in the audience. There's even a hint of pathos in privileged moments where hard-edged bridesmaids with big hair entice timid gentlemen to bump on the dance floor. Most touching of all are sincere cousins of the bride, assuring this critic's mama that she, indeed, doesn't look a day over 59 and, yes, does bear an uncanny resemblance to Liz Taylor.

This staged ritual evokes all the greasers and frustrated prom queens pressed between the pages of yellowing high-school yearbooks. Costume designer Brigid Borka's retro-'80s polyester formals and scene designer Carey Wong's '70s Sears-Roebuck Mediterranean kitsch release these half-remembered phantoms from their embalmed pages for one last fling.

Director Ross Young, who has nurtured this show across the country, has summoned up a cast of rambunctious guys and dolls, 26 of whom spring from Lake Erie's fertile shores. Among the visitors, Lisa Ray's Tina and Ray Ficca's Tony take parts that were designed to be retreads from Grease and, with their high-spirited animal magnetism, render the battling marrying couple as a Prego-flavored Kate and Petruccio.

In the two-and-a-half-hour whirl that makes up this masquerade, the madcap cast spins before our eyes like the multicolored pieces in a kaleidoscope. To this reveler, the most vivid performance was by Tony Petrello, who plays the bride's brother. With a winsome cleft in his chin, a little too delicate, a little too interested in choreographing all the dances, a touch too much pride in his design for Sister's wedding dress, he gradually falls out of the closet throughout the evening. This inspires a sad homophobia among the less enlightened audience members, imbuing this piece of froth with a dose of reality.

Stealing comic thunder is Don Mitri's slob of a photographer, flashing his camera in people's faces at all the most inappropriate moments. His was the evening's best running joke, funnier than Abbott and Costello combined.

Adding comic splendor and giddy intensity are Paul Floriano's oily caterer, Joseph Ruffner's Waspy ex-boyfriend of the bride, and Rohn Thomas's smarmy priest.

To err is human and to forgive an under-abundance of pasta and wedding cake, which qualify as snack rather than hearty wedding meal, is divine. To paraphrase the only non-Italian muse of the evening: If food be the music of love, this ain't enough. In other words, go for the fun, not the food.

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