“Vigorish, or simply the vig, also known as juice, under-juice, the cut or the take, is the amount charged by a bookmaker, or bookie, for taking a bet from a gambler. In the United States, it also means the interest on a shark’s loan (Wikipedia).”
Set in the cluttered back room of a Chinese take-out kitchen in Astoria, Queens, where the overhead subway line shakes the building and flutters the lights, Big Joe (Burt Young) is perhaps the last of a dying breed of Mafiosos. He is old and in poor health. His wife (the voice of Lizzie Peet), with whom he talks on an old-fashioned speakerphone, suffers from gout and frets over the coming graduation celebration of their grandson. Joe depends on his young assistant, Bocce (charismatic Ben Adams in a crisp, engaging performance), a smart, street-wise young guy who talks and moves like a rapper and does whatever Joe needs him to do — fetch lunch, call people, clean up or disappear on a long walk to give the boss some privacy. The owner of the take out-place, the improbably named General Li (Clint Jung in an easy, understated performance), a Chinese immigrant just trying to make a living, projects a kind of put-upon weariness the Germans call weltschmerz.
There is no drama without conflict, and the issue here is the disappearance of a jazz musician who had been given the task of delivering a bag of casino chips valued at a hundred large ($100,000) to a guy in Atlantic City. Eighteen hours later, no jazz guy to be seen and the chips are missing. This puts Big Joe behind the 8-ball. He has to scramble to make good on the hundred grand. He turns for help to an old associate, a fixer named Jimmy D., played by the smooth-talking Gareth Williams who delivers a character that could have walked straight out of The Sopranos.
The first act is rather low-key as the characters and situation unfold. Things liven up in the second act with the appearance of Detective Ray Price (a commanding Bruce Nozick in an over-the-top performance), a venal, corrupt cop looking to get his pay-off from Big Joe.
Burt Young is an iconic character actor with hundreds of film and television credits that go back to 1969 and includes an Academy Award nomination for his role as Paulie in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. This makes him the draw for The Last Vig. And his performance is cinematic. His character is emotionally true and heart-felt, which works well enough in the intimate, seventy-four-seat Zephyr Theatre. However, the softness of his delivery is sometimes hard to hear and his growly articulation occasionally difficult to understand. Some words are lost.
Directed by the playwright David Varriale, the show is handsomely produced with an excellent, authentic set by Joel Daavid, which is subtly lit by Kelley Finn. The props design by Phi Tran is terrific. The costume design by Mylette Nora supports character and action, as does the sound design by Will Mahood. Original music is composed and recorded by Jeff Babko. The show is produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners , and presented by Chinese Bookie Productions.
The Last Vig runs through February 19 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.