Mobsters, especially Italian ones, are as much a part of American folklore as cowboys. Writer-director David Varriale capitalizes on our fascination with them in The Last Vig, a character-driven dramedy that features seasoned actor Burt Young as an aging mob boss beset with family problems, diminishing revenues and a shrinking sphere of influence. The script isn't wildly original, but its colorful dialogue and eccentric characters promise an entertaining evening. That never evolves, however, for a couple of reasons, mainly Young’s failure to establish a strong stage presence, despite his endearing persona.
Big Joe (Young) operates out of the back room of a seedy Chinese takeout place, where he’s catered to by his youthful gofer, Bocce (Ben Adams), and sometimes assisted by the restaurant’s immigrant proprietor (Clint Jung). The play’s seminal event is the disappearance of a courier with $100,000 worth of borrowed gambling chips, which Joe is now on the hook for.
Joe turns to an old friend, Jimmy D (Gareth Williams), to help solve his problem. Jimmy successfully negotiates a loan from another mob boss to pay for the chips, but the appearance of a crooked detective (Bruce Nozick) throws a wrench in Joe’s plans to remunerate his debtors and underscores his growing vulnerability.
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The increasing precariousness of Joe’s situation is the drama’s overarching theme, and Young’s gruff, tough, rough-around-the-edges mien is the perfect conduit for this kind of story. The problem is that the performer’s delivery, while suitable for film or TV, proves inadequate for the stage, even given the production’s small proscenium. Nor is audibility the only issue; Young is too often seated at times when the action calls for a bolder physical confrontation.
These issues affect the other ensemble members and throw their performances off balance. You can see them summoning their craft in an attempt to compensate, but you get the feeling they’re working without much specific direction. It also bears mention that several particulars of the plot are left hanging, and the ending is abrupt and not wholly satisfying.
Joel Daavid’s detailed set includes photos of the pope, Muhammad Ali and Sophia Loren, and altogether furnishes an appropriately shady environs for the narrative.
Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; through Feb. 19. (323) 960-7712, thelastvig.com.