What if you plucked a group of extras playing gangsters in a low-budget mob movie and dropped them into a production of Shakespeare?

That's the conceit behind actor-producer Michael Rispoli's Friends and Romans, an endearing, enjoyable, and surprisingly clever farce about the joys of acting and the power of community theater to unite neighbors.

Best known for his role as Jackie Aprile in The Sopranos, Rispoli, who also cowrote and coproduced the picture, stars as a far-less-successful version of himself. He's North Jersey vegetable-delivery-truck driver Nick DeMaio, who moonlights as an extra in TV and movie productions. An enthusiastic actor who worships Marlon Brando, Nick isn't blessed with a particularly wide range, and he's usually typecast as a mob heavy.

Not happy with his lot, he has tried to expand his horizons. The film opens with an embarrassing audition for a part in a new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that has a flummoxed Nick badly mangle Tom Stoppard's lines.

"You wouldn't know anything about it," Nick tells a pal about the play. "It's some play about two Jews who get wacked."

Friends and Romans has a sluggish start, but gets going when Nick and his best friend, Denny, (In Plain Sight's Paul Ben-Victor) decide to get together with a group of fellow Italian American bit players to stage a Shakespeare production. They pick Julius Caesar - they love Brando's movie version - because the themes are so familiar: It is, after all, the story of the ultimate boss getting wacked by his capos.

Things get complicated quickly when a New York mob boss named Joey "Bananas" Bongano (Anthony DeSando) auditions for Nick's play. The FBI is convinced the play is a mob front, and send in an undercover agent (Charlie Semine) to pose as an amateur actor.

Rispoli's film, costarring fellow Sopranos alum Annabella Sciorra as Nick's wife, Angela, is nicely fleshed out by a subplot about another aspiring actor - Nick and Angela's teen daughter Gina (Faking It's Katie Stevens) - who wins a part in her school's production of Guys and Dolls.

The film flits between the two productions as they go from the audition process to rehearsals and opening night.

Friends and Romans isn't the most sophisticated comedy, but it should inspire a few giggles.



Friends and Romans **1/2 (out of four stars)


Directed by Christopher Kublan. With Michael Rispoli, Annabella Sciorra, Paul Ben-Victor, Katie Stevens, Charlie Semine, Tony Sirico. Distributed by Screen Media Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.

Parent's guide: Not rated (profanity, some violence, sexuality).

Playing at: United Artists Riverview Plaza.