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Uneven 'Sweepers' tries to brush aside ethnic stereotypes

John C. Picardi's "The Sweepers," a new play set among the women of Boston's North End in the last days of World War II, seems at first to be dealing in blunt stereotypes. Within the first few minutes of high-speed Italian-American housewife-speak, we hear about randy Irishmen from Southie and "prissfaces" from Wellesley College; there are wavings of hands and shrieks of "putana," sudden vanishings into kitchens, gluggings of gin, and abrupt, almost spasmodic genuflections to a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Quickly, though, we settle into a relationship with these women, and their tribalism and religiosity assume human proportions -- if not always with the greatest of subtlety.

There's fierce, busy Mary (Sarah Newhouse), who recycles garbage for the war effort and who, despite lamenting the absence of her husband and son, seems to be in rehearsal for a sharp-tongued and black-clad spinsterhood; Dotty (M. Lynda Robinson), older than Mary but racier and more girlish, fluttering with sexual nostalgia -- her shell-shocked husband is in the local VA hospital; and Bella (Marina Re), fond of a drink, who has mysterious and possibly romantic assignations around the city.

Bella's boy Sonny (Brad Bass) has been classified 4-F -- unfit for active duty -- on account of a heart murmur, and she keeps him at home and polishes him like an apple. The three women are neighbors, living in smothering proximity to one another and inhabiting a sort of babbling, fractiously shared single consciousness. Their conversations loop endlessly around the same themes -- the war, the loss of the menfolk, the dubious privilege of Sonny's exemption, his upcoming wedding to posh Karen (Robyn Lee) -- and make obsessive returns to private, half-announced sources of grief and pain. Over the course of the play these sources become less private and are finally laid bare, to general devastation.

The Stoneham Theatre's production of "The Sweepers" has an elegance the playwright doesn't always match. Richard Chambers's superb street-corner set manages to project both red-brick solidity and a certain quality of enchantment, a dreamlike super-stillness into which the rumors of war are filtered by radio and mail, and not entirely understood. ("What's atomic energy?" wonders Dotty.)

Sound designer David Wilson's use of white noise and fragmented radio broadcasts is also highly effective -- a Jeremiah-voiced announcer declares after Nagasaki that "the wrath of the atom fell like a commandment," and one's hairs stand on end.

Playwright Picardi, a Quincy native and graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has received a grant for a series of plays -- of which "The Sweepers" is the first -- that will attempt to "transform the negative images of Italian-Americans generated by the 20th-century media into positive images for the 21st century."

One suspects that this sternly undramatic brief is behind the flatness of lines like "Sonny, it's time to let go of these Old World ways and be an American!" Picardi's own preference seems to be for operatic emotional blowouts -- no character in "The Sweepers" is spared a huge self-unmasking speech, a crescendo of revelation.

The intimacy of the play's first half is dissipated over its second hour by a sequence of these barely controlled dramatic explosions, and by the last scene -- in which broomsticks are raised against the Blessed Mother even as, elsewhere in the world, the Japanese forces are laying down their arms -- the sensitive theatergoer may feel that his or her nerves have already been stretched thin.

The Sweepers
Play in two acts by John C. Picardi
Directed by: Robert Jay Cronin.
Set, Richard Chambers.
Sound, David Wilson.
Lights, Annmarie Duggan.
Costumes, Jane Alois Stein.
At: Stoneham Theatre, through April 18. 781-279-2200.

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