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The Other Philadelphia Story

Twenty years ago, Gemini, a comedy of minors set in South Philly, gave Albert Innaurato his first (and only) Broadway hit. A new revival finds the playwright finally putting pen to paper again.

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For Albert Innaurato, the humiliation never seems to end. Channel-hopping one winter night, the playwright paused when he saw Wayne Knight, late of Seinfeld, now performing on Broadway in Art, talking to Conan. "I thought, Oh, he's a funny actor. I haven't seen him in years, but he was a nice guy back then." Back, that is to say, in 1981, when Knight played Herschel in Innaurato's four-year Broadway hit Gemini. His interest, however, quickly turned to dismay. "He said, 'Oh, I was in this awful play called Gemini, and we used to have to throw food at the audience.' I thought, Oh God, it's not enough that it can just die, but I have to be made fun of on Conan O'Brien!" -- here Innaurato, 51, tall and round and pink-faced, breaks into a booming, articulated laugh -- "by an actor whose career it probably helped!" His voice sinks to a theatrical whisper: "I don't think he was working that much then."

Innaurato has not been working much recently -- at least not as a playwright. He pays the rent on his Chelsea apartment by writing for newspapers and magazines about opera, music, even starlets. He spends an inordinate amount of time cruising opera Websites, where he is not always welcome, given his affiliation with the Establishment press. "I am hated, I am loathed, I was tossed from AOL for starting flame wars. Without warning, a cabal went and got me thrown off. Opera people are nuts," he comments, without irony. And he watches nature shows "about insects who devour other insects." And reads the New Testament, in Greek.

He hasn't had a play produced in New York in ten years. Even now, as he tells of his humiliations, his eyes take on a steely glint. Gemini helped launch the careers of actors like Danny Aiello and Kathleen Turner, but they appear to have forgotten that fact. Then there was his William Morris agent, who rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, that's just what I need to circulate, another Albert Innaurato play." And there was Richard Eder, briefly the Times's drama critic, who, Innaurato recalls, declared in his review of Ulysses in Traction that the author celebrated "perverted lifestyles" and that his "promise was broken." It was 1977; he was 30 years old. "You know? That's very hard to deal with. It's very embittering." In truth, Eder's review makes no mention of perversity, calls The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie "extraordinary," and concludes, "It is premature to say that Mr. Innaurato's promise is broken in Ulysses. But it certainly is dispersed; no doubt, temporarily." Hardly a career-ending pan.

Yet Innaurato-as-playwright has always seemed to be anticipating his own (Catholic, operatic) martyrdom. Just look at the titles of his plays: Passione (Italian family reunites, compares attempted suicides, with fat daughters-in-law and lots of food), Benno Blimpie (500-pound youth eats himself to death), the low-cal Ulysses in Traction (drama students are trapped in the theater during a race riot). Gemini, his sole hit, was his most baldly commercial effort -- zero mutilation, self or otherwise. Anyone who watched New York late-night TV can remember the Gemini ad's two indelible lines: "Take human bites!" and "No thank you, Fran, I'll just pick." Plus a 16-year-old fat kid riding around and around on a trike (that's Herschel). It was as ubiquitous (and loud) as Crazy Eddie.

"You really think outrageous comedy and large-breasted women," says Second Stage Theatre artistic director Carole Rothman, who decided to bring Gemini back despite its burlesque reputation. Opening June 16, it's staged by Off Broadway's superstar director Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive, This Is Our Youth). "It's really a wonderfully written play, very funny, very uplifting," Rothman says. "It had a dark side to it, a human, real side that got a little bit overlooked." A year and a half ago, Second Stage did a reading of Gemini to see if it still worked; at the end of the afternoon, everyone cried.

Innaurato was 25 when he wrote Gemini, just out of Yale Drama School and working as a messenger. "I had the freedom of youth when I wrote it," he says. It concerns an Italian-American boy, Francis Geminiani, home from Harvard to spend the summer in South Philly, about to turn 21 and sexually confused. His Waspy sometime girlfriend, Judith, shows up with her brother Randy, whom Francis thinks he rather prefers. Then there are Francis's reformed gambler of a father, Fran, and his uptight girlfriend, Lucille; their oversexed next-door neighbor, Bunny; her fat transportation-obsessed son, Herschel. Cultures clash, food flies, hearts break.


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