The Portuguese Kid, according to a note from author John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), is loosely based on the Greek myth of Atalanta, a princess whose surplus of suitors leads her to promise she’ll marry anyone who can outrun her. No one can: In fact, she only loses, eventually, because of a trick from the goddess Aphrodite.
Atalanta Lagana (three-time Tony nominee Sherie Rene Scott) runs mental — or at least verbal — laps around the men in her life in this Off-Broadway production, but that’s where the similarities between her story and the myth end. Widowed twice over, Atalanta appeals to her childhood friend, lawyer Barry Dragonetti (Seinfeld star and Tony winner Jason Alexander, perpetually exasperated) to help sell her Providence mansion. Their crackling banter — as well as Barry’s early comment that the two of them are like “oil and water” — renders the end of the play predicable. This is especially true once we learn that Barry is married to young, attractive Patty (Aimee Carrero), and Atalanta is currently dating young, attractive Freddie (Pico Alexander), who are exes themselves. How else could these stories possibly end?
Of course, in a romantic comedy, the journey matters more than the destination — and with a cast full of scene-stealing actors like Kid’s, that journey is an uproariously entertaining one. Most of Shanley’s jokes are deliciously funny in his actors’ hands, as when Patty suddenly takes up vaping, and Barry quips, “It looks like you’re smoking Darth Vader’s cell phone!” Mary Testa, as Barry’s cantankerous mother, is particularly compelling, picking fights with both Patty and Atalanta in the way only a meddling, Sicilian mother can.
Not every joke lands: A running gag about voting for Trump is funny until it’s really not, and Freddie’s character sometimes leans a little too far into Italian stereotype territory. Even the titular joke — Barry was mugged by a Portuguese kid years ago and thus assumes everyone he doesn’t like might be that kid, all grown up — pales in comparison to far wittier one-liners. By the fourth act, the play’s inevitable conclusions have been dragged out just past the point of comfort — and when it tries to tackle more existential questions about life, love, and purpose, it falls short.
Still, The Portuguese Kid makes for a wildly entertaining couple of hours of whip-smart banter — as long as you don’t expect much substance beyond that. B+