TV’S DAN LAURIA TURNS PLAYWRIGHT, FOR ‘DINNER’ IN A SHOW

LauriaZavagliaActor and playwright Dan Lauria (left) co-stars with Richard Zaviglia in “Dinner with the Boys,” the “killer comedy” making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (photo by SUZANNE BARABAS)

(Expanded from article originally published in the Asbury Park Press, September 12, 2014)

He laughingly refers to himself as “the only Italian-American actor who was never on ‘The Sopranos’,” and — in an entirely unrelated thought — he “does not do plays written by old dead white guys.”

Ask anyone who’s watched a few hours of TV in their time, and they’ll peg Dan Lauria as the dad on The Wonder Years — the long-running, Emmy winning series just now on the verge of its first DVD release. That, or the current cable sitcom Sullivan and Son, a project of which he says, “I feel like I fell asleep under a cash register…I’m making money, and all we do is fool around.”

“We’ve got four standups on the set, and you can’t say a thing that’s not a straight line for one of them…you’ll get 20 minutes of dead-dog jokes, until you’re busting up laughing.”

Fans of football and legitimate theater — and no, they’re not mutually exclusive things — remain in awe of Lauria’s starring turn as Lombardi, the iconic coach who the actor channeled in several high-profile productions and TV appearances. From the Super Bowl legend, Lauria (who went to college on a football scholarship) moved on to multiple runs as Midwest humorist Jean Shepard, in A Christmas Story: The Musical.

Still, in a decades-long career of highlights, Lauria’s perhaps proudest of his work as artistic director at Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble (PKE) — the LA-based company that “produced over 450 public readings of new plays with the finest actors in the business, in order to promote the development of the new American playwright, and to seek literary representation for new writers.”

How fine were those actors? Try this dream cast on for size — Peter Falk, Jack Klugman, Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise. That was the assembled talent when Lauria’s original script Dinner with the Boys was performed as a reading, at a venue where it wasn’t out of bounds to see the likes of Gena Rowlands, Jack Palance and even Robert Mitchum joining in the fun. When his actors passed away one by one (“Charlie and Jack died four hours apart…I did the eulogy for both”), Dinner with the Boys was filed away — until Lauria got wind of a certain Monmouth County concern with a particular specialty in the development of new plays.

Eight years after its first script-in-hand performance, Dinner with the Boys makes its fully staged world premiere, as the latest offering from New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — with playwright Lauria and his PKE partner Richard Zavaglia joined in the cast by Ray Abruzzo (who did indeed feature on The Sopranos, as Little Carmine Lupertazzi) and octogenarian veteran Morris “Moe” Rosenbaum. Manning the megaphone is director-writer-filmmaker Frank Megna, with whom Lauria collaborated on Where’s Abe Weber, a circa-1980 video drama (for which “we robbed a soap opera set for a day”) that had the distinction of being the first original script ever produced for cable television.

“Somebody like George Clooney should bring back the sort of anthology drama shows, like they used to do in 50s and 60s, for cable TV,” Lauria observes. “I’ll bet they’ll be able to get the biggest stars; people like Sean Penn, Julia Roberts, at the lowest cost, because they’re all wanting to do something like that.”

As for what’s on the menu for Dinner, it’s described as a “killer comedy” about “a couple of old-time wise guys who like to cook great Italian food, complain about everything under the sun, and kill anyone who gets in their way.”

“It’s a bizarre little play,” the author says, “for Italians who didn’t like The Sopranos.”

It’s also got some serious points to make, Lauria adds, regarding our “culture of violence…how callous we’ve become to it all. The phrase ‘leave the gun, take the cannoli’ was what started it all; what led to things like extreme video games and the ‘Saw’ films.”

And above it all is the blood-red gravy of a prepared-on-stage meal; an immersive experience with “lots of onions and garlic wafting out over the audience…hopefully you’ll be hungry by the end of it.”

Produced with an eye toward a possible New York run in the coming months, the script was sent to Gabe Barabas at NJ Rep, a little playhouse that’s developed a coast-to-coast reputation among playwrights like Lauria, who states, “I wouldn’t give ten cents to a theater that didn’t develop new work…New Jersey Rep has something like seventeen published plays to its credit, and they believed in this show enough to put it on the schedule right away.”

BONUS Lightning Round! We asked Dan Lauria about his pick for favorite New York area kids’ TV show of all time…

Chuck McCann!

Favorite discount store chain?

JC Penney…at least it was when I was younger!

Joe Pepitone…or Ron Swoboda?

Swoboda. There was a little more art to what he did.

Favorite filmed-on-location 1970s New York movie?

Taxi Driver.

Crazy Eddie…or JGE Jerry?

Oh, Crazy Eddie. His prices were INSANE!

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