THEATER REVIEW : 'Breaking Legs' a Silly Symphony of Laughs

TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

We know bumbling bad guys are good for a laugh any day, especially if they're living their own modest version of "The Godfather."

Call Tom Dulack's "Breaking Legs" at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts spaghetti comedy. It milks the small hood premise for all it's worth, and at the hands of such super pros as Danny Aiello, Harry Guardino, Karen Valentine, Gary Sandy, Larry Storch and Vince Viverito, it's worth plenty.

The real trick of this mindlessly hilarious comedy is its reversal of expectations. "Legs" is not about a professor-turned-playwright (Sandy) who can't get funding for his play; it's about a professor-turned-playwright who gets more funding than he bargained for.

Angie (the sexy Valentine), a former student whose father (Guardino) owns an Italian restaurant, has suggested to the professor that her dad and his cronies--her "uncles"--might want to invest in his play. You bet. What good Italian papa wouldn't do that much for his little girl?

Never mind that the play is a grim avant-garde exploration of the philosophical permutations of murder. It was a hit in Buffalo. The professor is interested. In Angie, too. Until he meets the guys.

"Uncle" Tino (Viverito) doesn't talk much and "Uncle" Mike (Aiello) laughs without moving his lips. ("Break-a yoh legs," he tells the prof, to show that he's in the know. If "break a leg" is how you wish someone luck in the theater, then "breaking two is better.")

And then there's "Uncle" Frankie (Storch), who's got this small cash-flow problem. He owes the others money he can't pay up. No problem. They'll see that he runs into an oncoming train when he leaves the restaurant. Only the best funeral will do. The playwright can write the eulogy.

These fellas move fast and think BIG. Why do a play Off Off Broadway when there's Broadway? What's a few hundred grand if you can drive to the opening in a limo? All the prof has to do is change the title of his play to something hummable like "Oklahoma!," find a small role for the fat niece who plays the accordion and is depressed, and it's a deal.

Or is it? The complications mount in fairly predictable fashion, and have a happy ending. But the real joys of "Breaking Legs" stem not from plot, but from watching the sheer pleasure each actor takes with his character. Guardino, Sandy, Aiello and the surprising Valentine hold the plum roles and, under John Tillinger's smart direction, deliver them at the right clip and right decibel level.

Sandy has the toughest assignment, playing the least colorful but most physical and mercurial of the roles as the beleaguered professor. His mood swings vie for first place with his defense mechanisms, as he careens from cowed playwright to reluctant lover to cock o'the walk.

Guardino's restaurateur is a subtle Mr. Malaprop, whose misplaced words are sufficiently few to always catch us off guard. But ultimately, it is Aiello's loud bark, nervous stomach and grandiloquent bluster that are funniest, especially when they crumple so readily under Angie's strategic assaults. This is a woman who has studied at her "uncles' " knees and learned to best them at their game.

Food jokes pepper the action (natch) and set designer James Noone has provided a perfectly tasteless Italian restaurant as context for these perfectly tasteless guys. David C. Woolard has clothed them in gold chains and polyester, but "Breaking Legs" is memorable chiefly because expert zanies at work make the fun too supremely silly to forget.

* "Breaking Legs," Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. Today-Sunday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. $29-$43; (310) 916-8500. Also Mon.-Tue., 8 p.m.: San Diego Civic Theatre, (619) 236-6510 or 278-TIXS. Running time: 2 hours.

Harry Guardino: Lou Graziano

Karen Valentine: Angie

Gary Sandy: Terence O'Keefe

Danny Aiello: Mike Francisco

Vince Viverito: Tino De Felice

Larry Storch: Frankie Salvucci

Producers Elliot Martin, Bud Yorkin, James and Maureen O'Sullivan/Cushing. Director John Tillinger. Playwright Tom Dulack. Sets James Noone. Lights Ken Billington. Costumes David C. Woolard. Production stage manager Elliott Woodruff. Stage manager David Hyslop.

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