Playwright Dina Morrone’s Moose on the Loose is one of those rare family comedies, with something meaningful to say, that comes around once every few years. This original work, which is both hysterical and touching, and can be experienced at Theatre West through May 21st, draws on Morrone’s own autobiographical experience as a first-generation Italian whose family immigrated to the freezing tundra of Northern Ontario, Canada. After a phone conversation with her mother, who detailed the story of a wandering moose meddling in her neighborhood, Morrone had the idea to combine the literal and metaphorical symbolism of the displaced moose with four generations of an immigrant Italian family who have more in common with the commotion-causing mammal than they realize.
At its heart, Moose on the Loose, which takes place at the turn of the last century, delves into compelling family dynamics about feeling accepted versus left out, understandings and misunderstandings due to a language barrier, traditions juxtaposed against modernism, and a well-intentioned passion manifesting as a forthrightness that comes off a little strong to the uninitiated but is all the more uproarious for it.
Pina (Laura James) and Rodolfo Pupi (Richard D. Reich) are the matriarch and patriarch of a clan who left communist Italy for Canada and the freedom of opportunity. The Pupis live with their daughter Maria Tappino (Constance Mellors), her out-of-work husband Giuseppe Tappino (Stuart W. Howard), and two of their grandchildren: Joseph Tappino (Nick McDow Musleh) who is studying to be a nurse, and the couch-potato, weather news-watching Bruno Tappino (Rick Simone-Friedland) who has an indigenous girlfriend of 10 months named Honabigi (Meg Lin). The Tappino’s other two children include self-reliant daughter Gina (Erica Piccininni) who arrives from Rome (and in time for dinner) with a secret, and daughter Carmela Tappino-Williamson (Deanna Gandy) who visits with her husband Darryl Williamson (Cecil Jennings) and their son Timothy (Darby Winn). When Maria finds out over the phone from her Polish neighbor about the possible imposition of a Moose (James Lemire), it inevitably becomes the talk of the household, prompting Giuseppe to take matters into his own hands, which comically leads to his detainment by the local Chief of Police (Lemire). As the entire family gets involved in the quandary, other — and more significant — conversations are explored.
The performances — augmented by their fair share of well-executed Italian accents — are terrific across the board, but the one that stands out the most is James as Grandma Pina. Her comic timing, especially as she levies rip-roaring quips against her onstage husband in Reich’s Rodolfo and Jennings’ taciturn Darryl, is off the charts. As immovable as she is about her philosophies on life (“you play with fire, you gonna get burned”), Pina is a lovable character clearly identifiable to immigrants and anyone who grew up with expatriate guardians. Similarly, Reich’s depiction as Grandpa Rodolfo feels just as real and relatable. Rodolfo is ultimately a good sport about fielding his wife’s barbs, and the chemistry between James and Reich is layered enough where attendees will acknowledge an unmistakable love and respect nestled right under the joshing.
Mellors, too, is wonderful at being able to convey Maria’s internal dilemma of living out what might be outdated values in a country that doesn’t espouse the tenets of her upbringing. Like her mother in the play, the audience gets the sense that the talkative Maria has the most sway in her household. And, while she isn’t afraid to tell him off if necessary, she has an adoration for her husband Giuseppe, portrayed by Howard, who movingly expresses his persona’s fish-out-of-water feeling as a man whose allegiance forever lies with Italy — so much so that he desires that his own children marry full-blooded Italians — but is caught in an endless loop of bills and responsibilities. Yet, notwithstanding his frustrations, which also include not being able to communicate effectively with his Canadian-raised children and pronounce the name of his grandson Timothy, Giuseppe is admirable for never giving up and rightly questioning what “happiness” really is.
Like their grandparents and parents, the first-generation Tappino children sometimes feel out of place, but it’s not due to their geography; instead, it’s a predicament pertaining to identity insofar they have to reconcile the culture they were born into with the principles of their present day. Piccininni’s Gina, who lives an antithetical life compared to her parents, compellingly explains this incongruence during a poignant monologue. In addition, Musleh’s fervent Joseph (a role shared with Ari Wojciech) finds himself having to be unduly patient in balancing his evolved conventions with that of his family’s. Moreover, while Simone-Friedland’s Bruno is oftentimes nonchalant and carefree — a portrayal that is pulled off effortlessly — the audience can feel his apprehension as he is faced with the challenge of making himself and his girlfriend Honabigi vulnerable to a brood that can be pointedly judgmental. As Honabigi, Lin’s self-assured and dryly humorous interaction with the family makes for some memorable moments.
Furthermore, Gandy’s Carmela is commendable as the supportive wife of her husband Darryl, who is subtly and not-so-subtly snubbed by the ménage, particularly Pina, for generally keeping to himself and simply being of non-Italian descent. Jennings excels not only with his delivery in the context of what is an uncomfortable situation, but through his defeated body language. As Carmela and Darryl’s son, the youthful Winn adds a playful energy to the show and earns laughs when he tries to relay that his character’s grandfather is “inna da jail.”
Last but not least of the actors with a starring role is James Lemire, who, as the fur-clad and antler-sporting Moose with a Molson beer in hand, jocularly introduces the play and quasi-narrates the proceedings that follow. Lemire is equally engaging as the sympathetic Chief of Police who finds Giuseppe red-handed and subsequently does his best to be understanding of his detainee’s personal and familial issues. Not to be unnoticed is John Cygan, who voices various news reports with an on-point Canadian accent, perfectly straddling the line between reality and satire.
As terrific as the material is on paper, Director Peter Flood ensures that the snappy dialogue and wit in Morrone’s play are carried out with proper pacing and timing by its performers. Set Designer Jeff G. Rack (alongside Set Builder Tom Sanders) has created a wonderfully cozy box set replete with a full-sized kitchen, dining table, living room, hallway, and front door that leads right out to the unrelenting snow. Costume Designer Mylette Nora captures the disparate fashion sense among a quartet of generations, and Sound and Lighting Designer David P. Johnson utilizes the 61-year-old Theatre West stage to maximal effect, evoking both Canadian and Italian sensibilities with songs that presage Acts I and II. Not to mention, Johnson’s lighting delineates the Moose’s raison d’être in contrast with the family’s motivations.
All in all, Dina Morrone’s Moose on the Loose, which is aptly enjoying another run at Theatre West due to popular demand, is a play absolutely not to be missed. Strengthened by a collection of fully realized characters and enthralling themes, it is a well-crafted and sidesplitting tableau of a multigenerational family whose members are linked by a deep-rooted love even if they bicker about how they look at the world and themselves. Many attendees who grew up in such families, or who have experience with equivalent circumstances, will find the narrative to resonate at a visceral level as they invariably react with laughter and a sense of endearment.
Theatre West’s production of Dina Morrone’s Moose on the Loose, which runs through Sunday, May 21st, plays on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. For more information about the show, and to purchase tickets, please visit theatrewest.org. Tickets can also be purchased by calling (323) 851-7977. Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Boulevard West, Los Angeles, CA 90068.