We’re in the Bronx, in the ‘60s, watching life in an Italian neighborhood through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy. Signs on a lamppost tell us we’re at 187th Street and Belmont Avenue.
That detail is important. It underscores the almost feral sense of place and character in the autobiographical “A Bronx Tale.” The production is a raucous, solo tour de force written and performed by Chazz Palminteri, a recent arrival from New York who spills all his Bronx luggage over the stage of the West Coast Ensemble.
Talk about a hot calling card. Palminteri, in mercurial shifts, plays at least a dozen neighborhood miscreants and cutpurses, besides framing the events through the perspective of his adult persona.
The director is Mark W. Travis, who has carved a mini-genre staging one-man confessional, theater-of-therapy pieces, namely “Time Flies When You’re Alive” (about the death of a young wife) and “No Place Like Home” (about child abuse).
This time, however, Travis has made a big departure. The material isn’t painful, the drama is not inward, and the actor could just as well be making the whole thing up. The success of this show never relies on the fact that Palminteri’s adventures really happened to him.
In short, the shock of the personal is submerged into a plot that’s bountifully commercial, hitched to the ripest of childhood conflicts: good versus villainy. Here, the youth’s love for his upright father is sorely tested by his fascination with a flashy small-time numbers racketeer, whose protege the boy becomes.
There’s innocence, betrayal, murder and, when the boy protagonist becomes a teen-ager, a racially daring romance with a black girl that hurtles events skyward.
Palminteri’s verbal and physical virtuosity paint comical images. He’s never merely a clever guy with a hilarious Italian Bronx swagger mimicking creeps and bozos from his childhood but a chameleon capturing characters in saloons and on tenement porch stoops (set design by Lee Ranch and Roger Kelton) in an intermissionless show that is shaped like a brisk three-act play.
What we have here is the theatrical genesis of a terrific movie. It comes as no surprise that Travis has staged the production cinematically (with shifting lighting design by Mark Vargas).
Flashes of “Street Scene,” “Angels Have Dirty Faces” and even “Next Stop Greenwich Village” swim into focus.
Those who see the show shouldn’t miss the candid photo, inauspiciously posted outside the theater, of Kid Palminteri and his buddies, including the racketeer known as Little Johnny, taken on a street in the Bronx in 1968. (The producers should ID it.)
Performances at 6240 Hollywood Blvd., Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 7 and 9 p.m.; through April 8. Tickets: $10-$12. (213) 466-1767.