Saturday, February 13, 2016





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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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