By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
A. Zell Williams' Down Past Passyunk, is one of those rare plays that makes you sympathize the very kind of person you despise. And that makes it exactly the kind of play InterAct Theatre Co. specializes in: a human story about a politically volatile topic.
The plot springs from the true and ludicrous events that took place—and perhaps are still taking place--two years ago at Geno's Steaks (which, for anybody who has not been down past Passyunk, is the garishly lit competitor of Pat's King of Steaks: both South Philly landmarks.) The owner of Geno's put up a sign "Speak English," which launched a debate about whether immigrant patriotism can be measured by linguistic competence.
But Williams has invented a new South Philly corner occupied by Grillo's Steaks, where the third generation owner, Nicky Grillo (the terrific Wiliam Zielinski) foments neighborhood bigotry and violence against the recently arrived Hispanic community, especially a competitor across the street, Ignazio Guerrero (Bobby Plascenia).
The plot is complicated by his feisty daughter Sophia (Alex Keiper is absolutely convincing and a pleasure to watch) and her former boyfriend, Stanley Drago (Brian Cowden equally fine), a tormented, lovelorn cop whose South Philly accent has been erased by an Ivy League education; there is a small stunning moment when, at the end of his rope, terrified and guilt-ridden, he reverts to the neighborhood accent. The media, represented by an ambitious newscaster (Kittson O'Neill), exploits the ugly confrontations for her own career purposes.
The play is both an engrossing family drama and morality play; does Nicky learn how wrong he's been, but learn it tragically too late?
Down Past Passyunk (the "Mason-Dixon Line" of South Philly) is also a play about real estate, as so many American plays are, and the landlord, Vince (William Rahill, who makes a cliché character utterly believable) plays a pivotal role in both the neighborhood and the family. Is there a better way to write about time passing and things changing than to chart the changes in a neighborhood: Italian, Hispanic, gentrifying yuppies. Just ask Emma (Alice Yorke), who, eight years later, is selling not steak sandwiches but quiche and overpriced decaf.
There are a few moments that seem like the playwright's intrusions: would Nicky really use words like "ergo" or "miscreant"? Would he say, "I am proud to be an American but the American Dream is kind of on hiatus"?
Director Matt Pfeiffer creates a world onstage which feels painfully real but is as watchable as a fast-paced TV police drama.
InterAct Theatre Co. at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. Through April 27.
Information: 215-568-8079, or www.interacttheatre.org