For comedians, family is a go-to topic if ever there was one. With a subject so bottomless and limitless, how could it not be a staple of stand-up?
To a lesser extent, food can also be meaty (sorry) material. The great Jim Gaffigan has built an entire career out of it. And then there’s mortality. Viewed in a certain twisted way, even the prospect of the Big Sleep can generate big laughs.
Kevin Cirone blends all three in “The Good Deli,” his sharp, funny, and perceptive new play at Moonbox Productions. A Boston-area dramatist, Cirone brings a lot of verve and an authentic local flavor to this X-ray exam of a complicated family lurching through a medical crisis.
Directed by Allison Olivia Choat, “The Good Deli” revolves around a stand-up comic named Julia, portrayed by Aimee Doherty at her considerable best, whose gravely ill, estranged father, Wilford (Phil Thompson), tasks her with a nearly impossible mission.
From a hospital bed in Portland, Maine, Wilford pressures Julia to promise that she will somehow find an Italian deli in East Boston the family had visited many years before — its name has been lost in the mists of time — and take him there when he gets out of the hospital, even though “if” seems more likely than “when.’’
And even though Julia and her dad have a contentious relationship, not made easier by the fact that Wilford and his ultra-loyal second wife, Dana (Catherine Lee Christie), don’t really understand what she does for a living. Clearly speaking for Wilford, Dana tells Julia that “you’re squandering your potential, wasting your gifts,” even though Julia’s stand-up career is on the rise.
Among Doherty’s own multifarious gifts is a knack for playing performers. I still smile at the memory of her hilariously over-the-top turn as narcissistic performance artist Maureen in a 2011 production of “Rent” at New Repertory Theatre. In Moonbox’s 2018 production of “Cabaret,” Doherty brought a “Liza-who?” fearlessness to her portrayal of down-but-defiantly-not-out Sally Bowles.
Doherty is utterly persuasive in “The Good Deli” as both Julia the confident comedian, nervy enough to go onstage and coax laughs from strangers, and Julia the daughter burdened by an internal cocktail of uncertainty, anger, and yearning as she confronts the possible demise of a father with whom so much is unresolved.
“I went from Daddy’s little girl to this wall, a mile thick,” Julia says to her brother, Max (a very fine H. Webb Tinley). “How am I supposed to chip through that?”
While “The Good Deli” is primarily about her (and his) attempt to do so, in a bid to alter the present by recapturing a bit of the past, it’s also about the pursuit of, and the impossibility of, perfection.
That theme is further underscored when Julia meets Peter (played by playwright Cirone), who, in an act of conscience, has left the priesthood after 14 years. As her father’s medical problems begin to multiply, Peter becomes Julia’s confidant, amid strong hints the ex-priest could eventually be something more.
“The Good Deli” is not without a few false notes. An elaborate routine involving an exotic dancer (an impressively gymnastic Janis Hudson) registers as gratuitous. When the nebbishy Max starts showing the dancer photos of his children, it feels like a direct lift from the Pigeon sisters scene in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
But there is much more to like than cavil about in “The Good Deli,” including Thompson’s performance as Wilford. The actor balances the father’s pugnacity with a sly-and-dry humor that makes you see whom Julia inherited both qualities from.
You can also see, in the layers of resiliency and toughness with which Doherty endows Julia, why she’s the one her father puts in charge of the Great Deli Hunt, and why he tells her: “You’ve always been the one who’d do what needs to be done when [expletive] went down.”
“The Good Deli” is running in repertory at Moonbox with “Jonathan,” a one-act drama by Mary ElizaBeth Peters, who, like Cirone, is a local playwright.
Directed by Brad Reinking, “Jonathan” is highlighted by Sam Fidler’s excellent, multilayered performance as the title figure, an autistic 19-year-old taking on the challenge of his first job and determined to be good at it.
Working as a cashier at a big-box store, Jonathan has to cope with a disrespectful and undermining boss (Bill Mootos); an array of unruly — sometimes insensitive — customers; and his well-meaning but overly fretful mom (Laura D. DeGiacomo). An initially sharp-elbowed co-worker (a lively Kara Chu Nelson) eventually emerges as an ally.
But the production’s rhythm is choppy, and the ending feels rushed. Several of the characters in “Jonathan” need to be fleshed out; the play is ultimately too fragmentary and underdeveloped to resonate as fully as it should.
However, Fidler’s commitment to the role of a young man who sets out to transcend expectations, and then proceeds to do so, could not be more complete.
THE GOOD DELI and JONATHAN
“The Good Deli,” by Kevin Cirone, directed by Allison Olivia Choat. “Jonathan” by Mary ElizaBeth Peters, directed by Brad Reinking. Presented in repertory by Moonbox Productions. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 2. Tickets $35. 617-933-8600, www.moonboxproductions.org