The pensive opening scene in Susan Charlotte's gut-wrenching 9/11 drama, "The Shoemaker," is a fitting prelude to what follows in this grueling, emotionally charged play about loss and grieving.
The title character, portrayed with commanding presence by Danny Aiello, sits alone in his shoe-repair shop — a mosaic of antiquated remnants, with walls speckled by forlorn notices on yellowed paper. Opera is playing. The man is motionless, legs crossed, immersed in the music and something else unseen. Silent anguish paints his face.
This somber distress is the prevailing mood throughout Charlotte's meditative study in bereavement, which opened Sunday at off-Broadway's Acorn Theatre.
Aiello, 78, plays Giuseppe, an Italian Jew who came to the U.S. as a child to escape the Holocaust, leaving behind family members, never to see them again. The actor is in fine form, alternating between nostalgic reflection and the trademark, fist-clenched outbursts of emotion that make him so watchable.
The play takes place on Sept. 11, 2001, and is set entirely inside Giuseppe's shop in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York. Compounded by the obvious stress and sorrow of the day, the shoemaker is troubled by a strained relationship with his absent daughter and the memory of his long-deceased father.
The playwright and cast display a knack for potent, flowing dialogue, as Charlotte thrusts her main character together with two similarly distraught customers.
An impassioned Alma Cuervo plays Hilary, a college professor who comes into the shop to get her shoe repaired after walking the length of Manhattan, announcing to Giuseppe in exhaustion, "My sole is broken."
Lucy DeVito, the daughter of actors Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, delivers a sweetly affecting performance as Louise, a young finance worker who mourns the loss of her own father and elicits from Giuseppe a paternalistic affection.
Aiello appeared last year in an off-Broadway production of the original play, which since has been expanded to include a second act. Despite its lengthening, the piece remains void of any real plot, relying mostly on dialogue to reveal the defining elements of each character's past.
In exploring themes associated with 9/11, the Holocaust and the sensitivity of family bonds, Charlotte asks a lot emotionally of her audience. The 90-minute play is consistently tense but generally coherent, under the direction of Anthony Marsellis, who also directed a recent film version of the drama called "A Broken Sole," which featured Aiello opposite Judith Light.
The production hits some theatrical snags along the way, particularly in a couple of scenes late in each act. Giuseppe imagines conversations with his dead father, who is awkwardly voiced offstage in a hokey, reverb-caked effect that unintentionally diminishes the gravity of the Shoemaker's hallucination.
Performances of "The Shoemaker," which run through Aug. 14, are followed by a question and answer session with Aiello, who seems perfectly cast in this role.
The play is likely to be too overwhelmingly gloomy and static for some theatergoers, but it ultimately provides its lead actor with a natural vehicle to do what he does best — emote.