2 min

Mambo jumbo

It's a sitcom with problems

Credit: Jocelyn Michel

Publicity for Mambo Italiano, now playing at the Elgin Theatre, begs the question, “What is ethnicity?” when it claims that playwright Steve Galluccio has taken a gay couple and placed them in an ethnic community.

The mainstream fascination with the “eccentricities” of ethnicity found a triumphant success in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Mambo Italiano, set in Montreal, furthers this trend as it comically explores the reaction of two Italian families to their sons’ sexuality. All of the standard jokes flow trippingly from the tongue and pave the way for prosaic, Hamlet-like monologues from the two gay men. But this is Hamlet gone terribly wrong. The jokes are predictable and the accents are so over the top that if I had to hear the word ho-mo-sec-s-you-alley blast out of the Italian mother’s mouth one more time I would have screamed bloody murder.

The suicide sub narrative of Mambo Italiano, involving an aunt whose death (she fell off a bridge!) becomes the family’s open secret for 30 years, tries to draw a parallel to the gay sons’ struggle with who they really are. Galluccio’s writing takes these complex intersecting narratives and renders them the stuff of which prime time situation comedy is made. To each his own.

However, had someone told me in 1980 when I was 24 years young and parading my youth in and out of every stereotypical gay scenario I could sink my teeth and tongue into, that in 2003 I would be reviewing a hit play that treats gay sexuality like an episode of I Love Lucy, I would have rode my pink tricycle over to the Bloor/Danforth viaduct and taken the first flight into the heart of the darkness of the Don Valley.

But that was 23 years ago, and now, at 46 years young, I have grown accustomed to the backward and forward leaps that almost every 20th-century liberationist project, from feminism to fellatio, has taken.

There are some poignant moments of “truth” in this broad, farcical comedy, originally written in English and translated by Michel Tremblay for French-speaking audiences. But the half-truths are, to quote Revelations, an abomination. My least favourite one involves a dark, shallow description of gay bathhouses. They are not for everyone. But for some of us they are divine, and not the breeding ground for lonely old fags that Mambo Italiano suggests in its oversimplified mention of an over-abused aspect of gay culture.

Near the end there is a wonderfully irreverent triangular sequence finding the whole family in a series of confessional booths, bickering back and forth. But the final moments of the play, although cleverly written and staged, bring us a very dubious resolution that finds the liberated gay man at a Pride march and the closeted “married” one at a bathhouse. Isn’t that a rich cultural denouement!

If gay is in fact a culture, then what is our ethnicity? Galluccio has struggled with these questions, and he has come up with some comic and heartwarming moments. But they are so open-ended and so heavily saturated by predictable farce and shallow stock characters that one cannot help but wonder whether we have moved inches or miles or both, in 30 years.

Opening in Toronto after two successful Montreal runs, only weeks after the Calgary baths were raided, and in a period of history when gay marriage is gaining wider acceptance, Mambo Italiano attests to the very mixed and problematic response we are all having to our own liberation in a world that continues to struggle pathetically with human difference. At the risk of building a soapbox around my own dubious response to this play, let me conclude by saying that I have a love/hate relationship with scripts like this. I love what they are trying to be and I hate what they are.

Go see Mambo Italiano and decide for yourself.

* Mambo Italiano continues at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge St) until Sun, Feb 23; call (416) 872-1212.