What are friends for? “To blow the whistle on you when you’re insane,” according to the playwright. Can you build an entire play around this premise? You can if you’re John Patrick Shanley, whose popular plays and films have won him a Tony, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize.

Shanley’s 1988 play “Italian American Reconciliation” explores the lengths a man will go to in order to support a lifelong friend through the “insanity” that comes with divorce. And as currently performed at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, it makes for a delightful evening of comedy and drama.

John Collela, as Aldo, steals the show with his cool demeanor and his perfect “dese, dem and dose” accent. He establishes his Italian “chops” by getting the audience to join him in singing “Volare” when he makes his entrance, and he has them from his first “Whoah-ho.” And then he begins his tale about his friend Huey (Andy Lauer), who is still grieving three years after his divorce from Janice (Amy Jacobson Ruskin).

Huey, for some inexplicable reason is dressed like an Elizabethan hobo in patched orange velvet pantaloons (to which he later adds a bright red velvet jacket with wings at the shoulders). He is hiding away in his apartment, brooding, with what Aldo calls “the sickness of being a man.”

Huey has found another love, Teresa (Cloe Kromwell), but has come to the conclusion that he needs his former wife, Janice, even though she has brutalized him throughout their marriage. And so he is going to the café where Teresa works to break up with her.

Teresa, meanwhile, has come to the same conclusion and is preparing to break up with Huey. “He’s been kidnapped by his past,” she tells her wise old Aunt May (Mary Margaret Lewis). “The past came and threw a bag over his head and kidnapped him.”

Huey, preparing to break up with Teresa and try to win back Janice, whines, “Things are too big for a little guy like me not to be scared,” and begs Aldo to visit Janice to “soften her up” before his visit. Aldo is appalled. “But Janice hates me!” he protests. “No, she respects you,” Huey responds. “She don’t like you, but she respects you.”   Aldo, who is anxious to be helpful, nevertheless expresses his doubts. “To be of use may be to not let yourself be used,” he says, and then, at a quizzical look from Huey, adds, “I’m deep.”

As it turns out, Aldo and Janice have a long history. As children they played games where Janice was always trying to kill him. “I wanted to play house, I didn’t want to play dead,” Aldo protests. But she persists in calling him a “hammer headed clown” and berates him for being “Huey’s stooge.” “You never took me seriously,” she says, “and Huey wouldn’t look at me!”

The overtly macho Aldo presents a mirror image of the diffident and vacillating Huey, but both are on the same quest: to discover what it means to be a man and how to find and hold on to love. It may be a source of anguish for Huey and Aldo, but for the audience, getting there is half the fun.

As always, the Ruskin players have done a marvelous job.  Rae Allen has directed them shrewdly and made the most of Shanley’s comical dialogue. And the wiry, sexy John Collela is a delight to watch. The only weak link is Amy Ruskin, who is about 11 months pregnant in real life and couldn’t camouflage the fact even with the oversize negligee she wears throughout. Since she is not pregnant in the play, her figure is hard to ignore. And an added distraction during the performance I saw, was her dressing gown, which seemed to be inside out and upside down so that she couldn’t manage to get into it and wound up fiddling with it through a long, significant scene with Aldo.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it was a lovely evening at the theater.

 “Italian American Reconciliation” will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 6.  The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Ave., in Santa Monica. Call (310) 397-3244 for tickets.

Cynthia Citron can be reached at ccitron@socal.rr.com.

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