'Tony n' Tina': Married to Their Work : Improvisational wedding satire that's an off-Broadway hit is planning an L.A. ceremony

Here comes the bride. And the groom. And the singing nun, tipsy priest, lecherous father-in-law, stripper and rest of the bridal party.

Tina Vitale and Tony Nunzio, who have already gotten married more than 400 times in New York, start taking their vows in Los Angeles on Oct. 10. For $55 apiece--and $65 on weekends--total strangers can attend the wedding, then head over to the reception for baked ziti, drinks and dancing.

It isn't your traditional evening of theater, but thousands of theatergoers have helped turn "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" into one of the hottest tickets off-Broadway. Aided by a media blitz that could well make actors Nancy Cassaro (Tina) and Mark Nassar (Tony) the most recognizable bride and groom since Charles and Di, the show has been so successful that its producers are opening new productions this month in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

This is user-friendly theater, wrap-around entertainment like "Tamara," the long-running show at Hollywood's American Legion post and New York's Armory. But "Tony n' Tina" goes one step further. In "Tamara," you move from room to room listening as actors talk and interact with one another; in "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," the actors are still in character but they're improvising with audience members as well as with one another.

Previews start this week at the Park Plaza Hotel, a beautiful but weathered old building that faces MacArthur Park, and where a ballroom and patio area are being turned into a garden wedding setting. "When we walked in," says Cassaro, "I said 'perfect.' It had a grand elegance of the '20s, but it was definitely lived in. There were cigarette holes in the carpet and broken chandeliers. You could see that people have definitely partied down in this place."

At "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," the bridesmaids wear red lace and come down the aisle chewing gum. The unmarried maid of honor is very pregnant, and the mother of the bride is in black. The best man hands out coke ( fake coke) and the grandmother gives away grocery coupons. One of the ushers stops by to say he has VCRs for $25 apiece that fell off a truck, and the photographer hobbles up and down the aisle like his ankles are shackled.

The wedding reception starts with a toast of "wherever you go, there you are" and winds down with the bride and bridesmaids doing lip - sync to Michael Jackson's "Bad." When her frail grandmother faints on the dance floor and is carried off, Tina sneers: "She wants attention." And before the play ends, the groom shoves cake in the bride's face, the bride shrieks "I hate you," there's a barroom brawl and the bride knocks all the wedding gifts to the floor.

The audience is part of the action, and nobody stays a wallflower for long. Audience members are asked if they are guests of the bride or the groom, and then are escorted to their seats by ushers. There's a receiving line after the ceremony--"Isn't he as cute as I told you?" the bride asks one total stranger after another. And at the reception, where audience members are seated at assigned tables, the bride and groom make the rounds.

The "guests" sometimes get too involved. Set designer Randall Thropp plays Vlasik, a Russian emigre waiter, because, he says, "people take everything. We used to have stuff in the bathrooms but people trashed them. Once the show opened, I realized I had to be around all the time. This is a hands-on show."

On the other hand, people also bring things, many of which are now part of the New York set. The piano in the back of the hall displays actual congratulatory cards, and the bar area is decorated with such wedding gifts from audience members as a painted velvet Elvis and a cherub fruit stand.

It all started five years ago when Cassaro went to four weddings in two weekends and got to thinking about their dramatic potential. Besides doing performance art in Greenwich Village, Cassaro, 30, and Nassar, 31, had been doing improvs for years about an old Italian married couple. So, says Cassaro, "I asked him, 'Why not take that couple to when they were young, in love and got married?' "

They rounded up friends and classmates from Hofstra University and acting class, borrowed $1,000 from Cassaro's parents, and put on a show at an American Legion hall in the Village. After a second, slightly longer outing, Nassar's pal Joseph Corcoran, a Wall Street bond trader who was playing an usher, suggested bigger things. Corcoran, 29, and his brother Daniel, 26, also a bond trader, got together backing for a show in February, 1988, that they thought was going to be just a six-weekend run.

"Tony n' Tina's Wedding" has been going ever since, except for a month or so last year after Cassaro married Chris Fracchiolla, who plays the father of the groom. While the real wedding couple was off honeymooning, their colleagues moved the show into its current New York digs: St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church for the ceremony portion, then a three-block walk along busy Village streets to the reception hall.

The New York reception hall, like its counterpart at the Park Plaza Hotel ballroom here, was essentially a big empty room that designer Thropp turned into a gaudy bridal palace. Vinnie Black's Coliseum ("The Cadillac of Caterers") was based on real places in Queens, says Thropp, from the decor to the bric-a-brac. The baked ziti--27 pounds of it for every performance--comes from Gus' Place, the Italian restaurant downstairs.

"Tony n' Tina's Wedding" is the latest creation of Artificial Intelligence, an improvisational collective, of which Cassaro is the artistic director. Several group members brainstormed their own experiences at weddings, says Cassaro, and such story material as the priest's banal wedding sermon and the bride's propensity for cocaine came from direct observation.

Nearly all of the original 31 cast members are coming to Los Angeles with the show. That includes not just members of the bridal party but also the caterers, video man and musicians in the Donny Dulce and Fusion band.

One of the people in the audience last December was Douglas Urbanski, a 31-year-old Broadway producer relocating to Los Angeles. It was a rainy night, he had jet lag and the flu and he was only trekking down to the Village to make his girlfriend, Diane, happy. "But inside of 10 minutes, my flu was gone," he remembers. "I was up on my feet and I was saying 'I gotta do this show!' "

Urbanski, who has also produced at the Ahmanson, contacted Joseph Corcoran who, as it happened, was then looking for a Los Angeles partner. A number of people wanted to co-produce the show here, say the Corcorans, but Urbanski was ready to move on it right away.

It took a while to find proper housing for the $300,000 production, given that everything had to happen under one roof here. In New York, says Urbanski, "you can walk three blocks, but in Los Angeles, you can't expect people to get in their cars. It was hard to find a place that could do both."

Appropriateness was also important. "We found a church at one point, but Tina would never do a party in a church basement," sniffs Cassaro, whose own wedding took place at a Buddhist Temple, followed by a reception at her parents' country club.

Enter the Park Plaza Hotel, an art deco showplace in a somewhat seedy neighborhood. The hotel, which originally opened in 1925 as an Elks Lodge, today has both student housing and 100 rooms going for $35 single, $40 double. Its gym was turned into jail cells during the filming of Sylvester Stallone's film "Lock Up" and its lobby, grand stairway and ballrooms have appeared in numerous TV shows, movies and commercials. The Park Plaza has also been a popular site for various rock music nightclubs.

Thropp, who researched Los Angeles hotel ballrooms much as he had Queens wedding palaces, spent the latter part of September turning a Park Plaza ballroom and adjacent patio area into the World Famous Pompeii Court of Hollywood. Wedding guests will be surrounded by walls transformed into what Thropp calls "a big lattice nightmare," plus Astroturf walkways and ample plastic plants.

The groom will still make what actor Nassar considers one of the best entrances in the business--in New York, he shows up at the church in a toilet paper-decorated station wagon--but details of his arrival at the Park Plaza are being kept secret. "What's really crucial in environmental theater is the environment you create," says Cassaro. "The show totally changed even when it moved from one church to another."

The producers aren't just moving the Nunzio and Vitale families from Queens to the Coast, says Urbanski. "It's got to be as home-grown as possible if it's to work here. So many New Yorkers have seen it and said it will never work in Los Angeles. It needs a spin on it, not just that Tina lives in Woodland Hills."

In this version, Tina, Tony and Tony's father live in the Los Angeles area, but most of the bridal party will be flying in from New York. Tony's brother will drive across country, however, so cast member Eli Ganias who is really driving across country will pick up tourist information along the way that he can work into his improvs.

The New Yorkers will carry on much as they do in the New York version--and Nassar plans to keep Tony's Queens accent because "it will probably be even funnier out of its environment"--but the caterers, band and such will be California-ized. Band members did research on local bands, for example, and costumes for actors who are supposed to be from here will be purchased locally.

How do you rehearse a show like this? Company members expect to go in character as tourists to Universal Studios, Disneyland and the beach, maybe take over a restaurant and go bowling. Slipping in and out of her Tina character during an interview, Cassaro says she'll be busily trying to impress her "family" about all the stars she knows.

But whether playing Greenwich Village or the Mid-Wilshire District, "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" has a universal story. "It's amazing how many people say 'I see my family's wedding here,' " says director Larry Pellegrini, confiding that there was a major family fight at his own brother's wedding. "Not every wedding is like this one, but if it were a fairy-tale wedding, I don't think people would find it interesting."

While Nassar concedes that they reuse lines that work, much is still improvised even in New York. One night, for instance, a policeman friend of Nassar's drove by in his squad car when Nassar was outside the church, "said there was a warrant out for me, searched me, and said he'll get me later. He drove away and one audience member said, 'What a budget!' "

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