Like the main character in Over the River and through the Woods, Joe DiPietro comes from an Italian-American family in New Jersey. See here for a biography.
His writing led eventually to his first New York success, the musical comedy revue, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which opened off-Broadway in 1996 and is still running, twelve years later. DiPietro wrote the book—the spoken lines of the script—and the song lyrics for this show.
Two years earlier, Over the River . . . had had its New York premiere off Broadway—very far off Broadway, at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse in The Bronx. From there, following the success of I Love You . . ., this earlier work moved to Manhattan, where it opened somewhat closer to Broadway in 1998.
The characters in the play strongly resemble the members of DiPietro’s own family. At the time the show opened in New York, his grandparents, Ida DiPietro and Joseph Bellomo, were living a block apart in New Jersey, as in the script—though not in Hoboken, where the play is set. However, Ida’s husband, and Joseph’s wife had died some years earlier. Meanwhile, the playwright himself, and not his grandparents, had lived in Hoboken following his college graduation.
And as in the play, DiPietro’s grandparents look askance on their grandson’s move away from his ancestral roots. As his grandmother, Ida, remarked following the opening of Over the River. . ., “I wanted him to stay in New Jersey, and we felt very bad when he moved to New York. But he said: ‘It’s not so far. Don’t worry.’ I know I’m the worrier type, but as long as I hear from him, I won’t worry. He knows what he’s doing.” She also notes the strong resemblance of the play to her own family: “on that stage, that’s my dining room. It’s identical.”
However, the character most resembling the playwright moves much further away from his family than DiPietro did—all the way to Seattle. Perhaps that’s because, in real life, according to grandmother Ida, “this is still an attached family.”
The play is set in the Hoboken, New Jersey home of Frank and Aida Gianelli, the Italian-American maternal grandparents of Nick Cristano, the play’s protagonist. (Nick’s paternal grandparents, Nunzio and Emma, live around the corner, and are constant visitors to this house.) Aida is in her seventies; Frank is in his eighties. We see their living room and front porch, and doorways leading to the kitchen and hallway. The home’s furniture, the playwright tells us, is “well-worn, immaculate, and about twenty years out of style.”
This last bit of information conveys a number of crucial qualities about the character of the Giannellis. The furniture is “well-worn” because they are home-bodies. Their house, the center of the family, is the most important place in their lives, and so they spend lots of time there, wearing things out.
But, the furniture is also clean, reminding us that these are people who embody old-fashioned virtues of order and self-discipline. They would no more tolerate a dirty or untidy house than they would accept a life of moral anarchy.
And the furniture is “twenty years out of date,” which tells us that for the Gianellis loving one’s home does not require fancy display. Their frugality is an intrinsic element of their identity: waste not, want not. Better a familiar old chair you have sat in for two decades than something new and flashy-looking that feels strange and makes you uncomfortable.
The location of the Gianellis’ house in Hoboken is also significant. Like Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Queens, Hoboken is above all distinguished by not being Manhattan. Instead, like those outer boroughs, it sits across a river from the wealth, sophistication, and hectic pace of Gotham.
While the face Manhattan presents to the world is a collage of David Rockefeller, Donald Trump, and Woody Allen, Brooklyn is forever associated with Ralph Kramden; The Bronx with Molly Goldberg; and Queens with Archie Bunker—stalwart members of the ethnic working class who live their lives amidst unfashionable furniture in cramped houses and apartments surrounded by their blue-collar friends and modest families.
And what names or faces has Hoboken bestowed on the world? In the 1940s and 50s that small town (two square miles with a population a little bigger than Lewiston’s) lying along the Hudson River in sight of the towers of Lower Manhattan, was famous for a voice and an image. The voice belonged to singer Frank Sinatra, a native of Hoboken’s large Italian-American community, and one of the greatest figures of mid-century popular culture.
The image was drawn from Elia Kazan’s gritty masterpiece, On the Waterfront, a film about labor corruption on the New Jersey docks, filmed in Hoboken, and starring a dazzling young Marlon Brando. It was in Hoboken—fictionally, at least—that Brando sat in the back seat of a car and told Rod Steiger that he “couldda been a condenduh.”
In setting his play in this small city known for its Italian crooner and dockside tough guys, for its cultural remoteness from the glittering metropolis across the river, and for its tightly knit ethnic communities, DiPietro is clearly tapping into ideas and images that support the themes of his drama.
The play is built around the regular, sometimes urgent, visits of Nick Cristano to his grandparents’ house where he shares traditional food and loud talk with four members of his family two generations older than he. However, he lives and works in Manhattan, and so brings with him the rhythms and ambitions of the alien city on the other side of the Hudson.
Where Hoboken stands for family, community, tradition, the unbroken ties of the generations, Manhattan is the world of rootless social mobility, forward-looking ambition, individuals obsessed with their personal values and non-negotiable goals. In Hoboken, family is the center of the universe. In Manhattan, family is what you have fled from.
It is around the clash of these opposing views of the world—Nick versus his grandparents; Manhattan versus Hoboken—that the conflicts in the play are largely built.
Over the River. . . has been called a “memory play.” Generally this means a drama which is presented as the remembered experiences of a story-teller who appears on stage and, through direct address to the audience, provides narrative or interpretive context for the action.
For example, the first words of the play come from Nick, the visiting grandson, who informs us directly that, “It was always hot in my grandparents’ house. . . . like ‘it’s August in Ethiopia’ hot.” He also tells us, in the same speech, that his grandparents “firmly believed in the three ‘f’s’ of life: family, faith and food.” By connecting the “three f’s” with the oppresive heat, he links together suffocation and family obligation, implicitly conveying his sense of being both loved and stifled in this house in Hoboken. The remainder of the play will work variations on these themes, with Nick always balancing the attractions of family solidarity against the dangers of family entrapment.
In fact, so intent is the playwright on maintaining this balance, that he permits the grandparents themselves—all four of them—to share the stage as co-narrators in this memory play. They too get to address the audience directly, to tell us what we should think and feel about them, their grandson, and the crucial decisions he must make in the course of the play.
And so, the second speech of the play comes from Frank, Nick’s maternal grandfather, who recalls the day of his fourteenth birthday when his father put him on a boat from Italy to America. His parting advice to the son he would never see again was, ironically, “Tengo famiglia,” an Italian phrase meaning something like, “I’m a family man.” Frank lets us understand that not only was his father describing himself in this moment of parting, he was also urging his son to embrace life by founding a family of his own.
This Italian phrase becomes a frequently repeated verbal motif throughout the rest of the play: a summing-up of the moral foundations on which the grandparents have built their lives, a thumbnail statement of the purpose they are desperately trying to transmit to Nick, and an expression of the Hoboken yardstick by which all values are measured.
Next, Frank’s wife, Aida speaks, recalling the romance of her first meeting with her future husband, and marveling at his faithfulness in fulfilling the promise he made to her then: that if she would marry him, he would build her a house with his own hands—the very house in which the play is now taking place.
One more speech of direct address wraps up this narrative prologue. It is Nick again, once more balancing for us and for himself the attractions and the drawbacks of the tengo famiglia view of life. On the plus side is his grandmother, who never finished grammar school or learned to drive. But, Nick marvels, “lock her in a kitchen with a tomato, pasta dough and garlic, and the woman was Einstein.” From next to nothing, Aida conjures glorious food, one of the three “f’s” on which rests the gospel of Hoboken; and lured by its spell, Nick returns to her house weekend after weekend.
But then, flipping to the negative, he remembers that his parents have moved to Florida, and his sister to San Diego, departing for California with the dour observation that, “the best thing about being an American is you could stay in the country and still move two thousand miles away from your family.” In this note of cynicism we hear a protest against the smothering warmth of famiglia—a need to escape shared even by Nick’s own parents.
So the action begins with a young man equally drawn and repelled by the immense family energy of his four grandparents. And it begins not on a Sunday, the traditional day of Nick’s visit to Hoboken, but on a Thursday, because something has come up in the young man’s life that demands instant disclosure.
When Nick arrives, his grandmother, as always, offers him food, and is appalled to learn that he has already eaten—Chinese, a cuisine she sampled once, thirty years earlier, and never tasted again. Nick and his grandparents bicker about food, the temperature in the house, his grandfather’s increasingly menacing driving habits, what kind of cheese to have on a ham sandwich. Soon, they are joined by Nick’s other set of grandparents, Nunzio and Emma. They add to the conversational stew, snapping photos, complaining about the difficulty of working VCRs and answering machines, bellyaching about bus rides to Atlantic City, and finally getting around to Topic A in every conversation they have with their twenty-nine-year-old grandson: marriage. Specifically: WHEN?
Because Nick has come, unexpectedly, on a Thursday, with an announcement to make, the Hoboken elders all assume he must have arrived to tell them something truly important: that he is finally stepping up to the plate, finally taking a wife, finally fulfilling the destiny of tengo famiglia!
But no such luck. Nick hasn’t come to tell them about his life, but only his career. The marketing company he works for wants to promote him, an advance in status that will require him to relocate, and not just to a different part of the Tri-State Area, but to Seattle, on the shore of a different ocean a continent away.
Needless to say his grandparents are appalled by his good news. Instead of putting down roots and establishing a family somewhere within reach of their effusive love, he will join his parents and sister in the social centrifuge of American life. The family will be dispersed to the four corners of the American map: Hoboken in the northeast, Florida in the southeast, San Diego in the southwest, and now Seattle, in the distant northwest.
Faced with this crisis, the grandparents are roused to action.
EMMA. Not to worry. He won’t go.
At this point, the lights change, focusing-in on Nunzio, who now becomes a narrator. He steps forward to tell us that he has been diagnosed with cancer, that the disease has spread, and that he will probably never see his nephew again if Nick goes to Seattle. But at this point, nobody knows the dreadful news, not even his wife, Emma. If he makes it known to her and to Nick, “Then maybe he’d stay.”
Is that to be the plan? Nick thinks he knows what’s in store as he prepares to share his next Sunday dinner with the elders: “I expected them to be laying the guilt on something fierce. But they didn’t. They did something worse.”
The lights change again, and we have moved ahead to Sunday afternoon. Nick arrives, surprised to find Frank and Nunzio in jackets and ties, a sure sign that something calamitous is about to happen. Then the doorbell rings, and in steps Caitlin O’Hare, whom Emma introduces, loadedly, as, “the unmarried niece of my canasta partner.” So Nick has been sandbagged by his grandparents, trapped in a blind date that becomes—in his mind, at least—a hellish ordeal.
The torment begins at grace, when Frank asks the Lord to “bless our lovely dinner guest and our lonely grandson and may they find eternal happiness together.” A far-reaching outcome to expect from a first, unplanned meeting.
Next, Nunzio suavely observes, “Caitlin, I bet you like to drink. . . You’re Irish.” Though Caitlin takes no offense, Nick is mortified. And so it goes through course after course of a long Sunday dinner.
We discover that Caitlin is a vegetarian—which is not an animal doctor, as one of the elders describes it, but someone who, incomprehensibly, won’t eat veal. So, of course, they insist that she eat the veal. And, of course, she declines—with perfect good humor. Then Emma asks if Caitlin goes “to therapy like Nicky.” No subject, it seems, is too touchy to raise with a stranger, as long as she’s a potential wife.
Finally the excruciating meal ends, and Nick says goodnight to his unexpected table-mate out on the front porch. He begins by apologizing for all the embarrassments just caused by his grandparents, and proposing that they start over by having dinner together, away from family, in “a nice vegetarian restaurant.” Though Caitlin has no boyfriend, hasn’t had a date in ages, and is “even a little desperate,” she turns him down. And why? Because of his failure to appreciate his grandparents’ warmth and love, and because he is ashamed of their naïve failure to conform to the social standards of Manhattan. Her own grandparents are dead, and Nick’s failure to appreciate the blessing of having all four of his noisily alive and kicking appalls her. In a word, she is repelled by him because he “just acted like such an asshole” toward his elders.
Caitlin leaves, and something snaps in Nick. He castigates his grandparents for setting up this blind semi-date, accusing them of trying to snare him into a life like theirs, berating them for failing to understand that people nowadays, “do things different. We have careers and ambitions and we only fall in love with people who we choose, who we pick, when we’re damn good and ready.” Moreover, he’s tired of “constant interference! And judgment! And criticism!” No more will he feel guilty about leaving for Seattle, where he will “live the way I want to live. . . . ‘Cause guess what . . . I am an adult! Yes! There is a fully-functioning grown-up man who is standing before you who is perfectly capable of taking care of himsel—taking care of him—. . .” And with these faltering words, he “gasps for breath. . . . clutches his chest, then falls to the ground.”
And with the collapse of this newly-declared adult, the first act ends.
Act Two begins with Frank taking on the role of narrator, filling us in on how he drove his collapsed nephew to the hospital, where he was diagnosed, not with a heart attack as everyone had feared, but with a “panic attack.” “So, we figured, the only thing to do was have him stay with us.”
Naturally, the grandparents dote on their ailing boy, plying him with even more solicitude and food than usual, and turning the temperature up even higher. In an attempt to relax, they play a round of Trivial Pursuit, which morphs into a hilarious attempt to identify a classic American author by following a wild-goose chase of associations that begins with, “who’s your girlfriend who married that fellow who steals cars,” moves on to a string of Jewish comedians whose names might be relevant, and ends with Merv Griffin, who isn’t Jewish, but whose first name rings the bell that produces the answer: “Merv—Mervin—Merving—Irving! That’s it. . . . Washington Irving.”
This exhibition of Hoboken logic makes Nick laugh, a remarkable occurrence according to Emma, who can’t “remember the last time” that happened. This observation leads to some heavy philosophizing about life and happiness and the younger generation’s constantly worried intensity, its crazed inability to take things as they come.
This in turn leads the grandparents to reminisce about their own younger days, which means story-telling, which means family tales told many times before. In this case, Nunzio tells the story of his wooing of Emma sixty years earlier, about how he couldn’t bring himself to speak to the girl his was smitten with, but how he could sing to her—one song, over and over, every night for a month: “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.”
Suddenly Emma, Nunzio, and Aida are singing and dancing while Frank is playing the mandolin—a spontaneous burst of joy, with the older generation kicking up its heels while the younger—in the person of Nick—looks on, anxious, panic-stricken, seldom-laughing.
For his part, Nick steps out of the action and again becomes the narrator, telling us that he always imagines his grandparents’ lives to have been like an “old black and white movie . . . all very serious, very earnest.” But sometimes the old folks surprise him, and reveal that their lives were in fact “splashed with color” as vivid as anything modern times have to offer.
The storytelling continues, but in a more somber mood. Frank recounts his childhood in Italy, remembering with a bitter sadness all the Christmas days when his father would take him to the street fair, passing carts filled with brightly colored toys, and always buying him “some little gray toy I barely wanted, and I’d start crying.” As a result of these repeated disappointments, he grew to hate his father. Only years later did he realize that his father always chose the gray toy because that was the best he could afford. “I always thought my father was a bastard who wouldn’t give me anything. Turns out—he was giving me all he had.”
The focus on stage then moves to Nunzio as narrator. He reminds us that he still has not told Nick about his terminal illness because “it would be so selfish” of him to use that fact as a hook to keep his grandson bound to New York. And yet, he realizes that “what matters is family. And what’s in Seattle? Just some job.”
This signals another transition, both a passage in time and a change from narrative to dramatic mode. Nick is still recuperating at his grandparents’ when Caitlin drops by for a visit. She has come to explain more fully to him her reasons for rejecting him on their first meeting. Like Nunzio and Frank, she too has a story to tell about her family. The grandmother to whom she was closest, it turns out, was mentally unstable. Some days she would read to Caitlin from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea. But on other days, “she wouldn’t let me in the door because she didn’t think she knew me. She would stand there in a panic, screaming at me to leave her alone. . .” At thirteen, Caitlin was deeply wounded and confused by this experience, so the sight of Nick giving his grandparents a hard time over Sunday dinner was more than she could accept.
Once again they discuss the possibility of getting to know one another better, starting with a dinner date. But if Nick is going to Seattle, Caitlin wonders, what’s the point? And so, once again their relationship fails to get off the ground.
We make another temporal transition, and the day arrives when Nick must inform his grandparents of his final decision about Seattle. He has concluded irrevocably that he must go, and, of course, they are devastated. But even at this moment, Nunzio holds back from telling Nick about his illness. Instead, he simply wishes Nick well and promises that he “will always be there with you.”
And so they sit down to a final grand meal together. After exchanging tearful goodbyes, Nick leaves to begin his journey to Seattle, with his grandmother’s promise of a lasagna in the mail trailing him out the door.
The play switches again to narrative mode, with Nick stepping forward to tell us about life in Seattle, his fiancé, Theresa, and his reaction to Nunzio’s death. Then Aida becomes narrator. She informs us about the death of Frank and Emma, and describes her life on her own in Hoboken, where Nick pays an occasional visit.
The play’s last dramatic passage shows us one of those visits. Nick arrives at a house with now only one grandparent in it, lonely but filled with noisy memories of Sundays past. Nick urges his grandmother to come live with him out west, but Aida turns him down: “I can’t go. Not from here. Your grandfather built this house for me. How can I go?”
For one last time, Nick steps forward as narrator, boasting about having finally earned the right to say Tengo famiglia. As he waits for the birth of his first child, he realizes that the education his grandparents worked so hard to provide for their families has ensured that their children and grandchildren would move into a “life so far removed from their own” that the precious bond of family would ultimately be broken. “They let me go,” he marvels, though he still gets great food in the mail. The connection between the generations persists, but by the thinnest of filaments. The final words of the play are spoken by Aida—a statement and a question: “Everything came beautiful—didn’t it, Nicholas?”
THE CHARACTERS. The six characters in the play fall into two generational groups: the grandparents, in their seventies and eighties; and the grandchildren, in their twenties and thirties. And as we see in the course of the action, age is what largely determines the goals and choices of each individual in these groups.