Holy Matrimony! An Acting Troupe Joins Together, in Bonds of Satire, the Irrepressible Tony and Tina

updated 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/1988 01:00AM

As anyone who knew the families could tell you, it was bound to be a day to remember when Tony Nunzio married Tina Vitale. The reception was held three years ago at an American Legion hall on 14th Street in Manhattan, and old Grandma Nunzio passed out on the dance floor. Then Father Mark, having joined the happy couple, got drunk and abusive. And after the sixth fight between the newlyweds, Tony and Tina, the bride fled to the bathroom and refused to come out. A Legionnaire who sneaked in to cadge a few drinks clearly enjoyed all the commotion—but when he came back the next afternoon and found the same bunch at the same reception acting just the same way, he felt as though he had blundered into The Twilight Zone. "What the hell's going on?" the baffled visitor asked the groom. "Wasn't it official the first time?"

Well, no, it wasn't. In truth, Tony 'n Tina's Wedding was the work of the Artificial Intelligence comedy troupe, a piece of living theater in which members of the audience played the roles of guests. The trial run of the show proved a hit; now crowds are flocking to a new, open-ended engagement of Wedding, which is performed four times a week at a Methodist church, with the reception—cash bar—at a catering hall. As goofy as this fudging of artifice and reality is, members of the company take it all very seriously. "You go a centimeter away from reality, and you can point out what's really funny about a wedding," says Mark Nassar, 30, who plays Tony. "Because they're always balancing between reality and a play, the audience has a dazed look, like they're on some sort of trip."

As if real life didn't offer enough weddings to attend, 80 or so audience members pay $40 apiece to play along. Most stay in character, going through the reception line, dancing with the bride and sometimes even bringing such gifts as a crock pot and vase full of heart-shaped soaps. "Most weddings are a boring imposition," says James Cohen, 41, a Connecticut attorney who brought his wife and two children to the nuptial drama. "But this is great, like being a participant and voyeur at the same time."

The wedding itself fairly groans with clichés. During a frighteningly folksy folk mass, bridesmaids weep genuine tears, just about everyone in the wedding party chews gum, and Tina mumbles her way through a chillingly dreadful Rod McKuen poem that includes the lines, "Love is a thing that needs to grow/ Feed it jellybeans/ Treat it kind." The festivities continue at nearby Carmelita's Reception House, a relentlessly overdecorated place where the ceiling, lighted with flashing lights, drips with plaster stalactites. A group called Donny Dolce and Fusion plays—badly—the theme from Rocky as the bride and groom make their entrance. There is even an overripe wedding toast, shortly before spat No. 6 sends Tina in retreat to the John.

All of these touches are scripted, though conversation with guests is ad-libbed. "We write a time line," says Nancy Cassaro, 28, who plays Tina. "I know just when I confront my mother about there not being any prosciutto in the ziti. And then I have to get to the gift table, where my former boyfriend, Michael, is going to start a fight." To prepare for their roles, the cast even improvised a series of scenes—including a pre-wedding breakfast and a meeting with the caterer—to provide their characters with a common history.

"My concern is that everybody be as real as possible," says director Larry Pelligrini, 32. "I can find a person in my own Italian family to match up with each one of these characters." The results are all too convincing, but the ghastly foibles on parade transcend ethnic boundaries: This is Everyman's family. Lubricated by beer and ersatz cocaine, the characters even blurt out family secrets about an affair between Tina's gay brother and the cameraman who's pretending to film a home movie of the wedding, as well as the sexual adventures of Tina's cousin, a nun.

Tony and Tina were conceived while Cassaro and Nassar were studying theater together at Hofstra University on Long Island. Neither Nassar, a wide-receiver on the football team, nor Cassaro fitted into the mainstream theater crowd even then. "People would say to me, 'Oh, you're so funny,' " says Nancy. "But they didn't consider me a serious actress." To vent their unusual talents, Nassar and Cassaro became Tony and Tina in their dorm rooms, borrowing traits from relatives and people they knew. After graduating in 1981, the two found an appreciative audience when they presented Tony, Tina and other characters at New York nightclubs. Finally, after attending a series of weddings that seemed eerily like imitations of art, Cassaro recruited friends from acting classes (including actor Brian Dennehy's daughter, Elizabeth), formed Artificial Intelligence and worked up a ceremony.

When Cassaro herself is married this May—to Chris Fracchiolla, who plays Tony's dad—she'll have a plain Buddhist ceremony with a country-club reception afterward. There will be, she is confident, no problem with the ziti, no violence at the gift table and no dustups with a troublesome groom. Not that the guests would necessarily object. Most of the audience at Cassaro's rowdy theatrical nuptials leave with nothing but the fondest memories. At one show in January, a guest even stepped in to comfort Mama Vitale after she had a fight with Papa Nunzio. "I told her not to worry about anything that went wrong," said businessman Tom McCardle. "I told her it had been a great wedding and I enjoyed myself."

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