NAPLES — How do you take your tea? At Tea-A-Ria, Leonie Palazotto's Italian teahouse, you can skip the Lipton and head straight for the blueberry oolong or house specialty tropical mango. And don't forget to specify one lump, two lumps or poisoned. Mama Mia! Teatime will never be the same!
"Tea-A-Ria," playing Sundays at Fred's Diner on Immokalee Road through June 20, comes from the pen of Fort Myers Beach author and playwright Laurie Nienhaus. The hour-long show highlights the opening day's misadventures at an Italian tearoom. "The Family" shows up to help, a few bumbling Brits show up looking for a spot of tea and scones and Enza Malandra (Jessie Titus) shows up looking for another woman's husband.
"Tea-A-Ria" isn't Shakespeare; nor does it pretend to be. The show is a silly bit of fluff that tries to make people laugh. It does, if not belly-whoppers, then a constant stream of amusing giggles and pleasant titters that are enough to take the mind away from the world's troubles for a time.
Nona Lena (Donna Prima) makes her grand entrance wearing an outrageous flowered apron and brandishing a foot-long kitchen knife and screeching "Leonie! Ima notta cuttin tha crustsa offa tha breada. Ita donta maka no sensa!"
Prima, the founder of Fort Myers Beach's Orpheus Players, creates something special with Nona Lena, who - like all Italian mothers - demands the spotlight. She curses, she spits, she interrupts, she bangs pots, she pulls eggs out of her pockets and gives them to the audience and she tells everyone what to do. When asked to display the cucumber sandwiches - she parades a meatball sub. The play's sole monologue - a loving tribute to family - sparkles in her hands.
Titus, clad in a skin-tight black and red print, bats her eyes, thrusts her assets and swings her head of flame-red hair about the room as sexpot Enza. One steamy scene with old flame Tomasso DeLuca (Sherwood Cooper) ends with some unsubtle stroking of his tie and the dialogue "these tea ladies turn the heat on high ... and then turn it off as soon as the water starts to boil. You like to keep the heat on high for a long, long time."
Although "Tea-A-Ria" was scripted with more audience interaction in mind, Fred's Diner squeezes in 60-odd seats for the show, leaving only a small aisle in front of the restaurant's bar. Many of the show's biggest laughs come from the cast's interactions with the audience - whether it be Enza plopping in someone's lap when she can't find a chair or Nona Lena demanding answers to what's going on. As "Tea-A-Ria" develops, it needs to find ways to spotlight those moments.
As with any farce (and especially this one), the characters are only their quirks - be it busybody aunt, nattering Brits or imposing tough guys - and need to project those attitudes more. Don't just act - overact - and some of the cast isn't all the way there yet. Still, there's plenty to laugh at - and Nona Lena always has some vino in the kitchen!
I'm from the South. We like a little tea with our sugar. E-mail me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.
IF YOU GO
What: Three-course Italian meal and an hour-long comedy about tea
When: 7 p.m. May 23, 5 p.m. June 6, 13 and 20.
Where: 2700 Immokalee Road, Naples, in Uptown Plaza
Cost: $29.95; drinks, tax and 18% gratuity not included.
Information: 239-431-7928 for reservations
Something Else: Ticket prices include three-course meal & show; choice of three 1940s Italian entrees: chicken, veal and pasta
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