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Theatre in Review: american (tele)visions (New York Theatre Workshop/Theater Mitu)

Raúl Castillo and Bianca "b" Norwood. Photo: Joan Marcus

In american (tele)visions, a family of undocumented immigrants unravels against a shifting dreamscape defined by Walmarts, video games, and nonstop TV broadcasts. The time is the Reagan 1980s; Octavio, the patriarch, has arrived from Mexico, finding work assembling prefab houses. He earns enough to bring to the US his wife Maria Ximena, their son Alejandro, and daughter Erica; sadly, however, their American dream has the staying power of a soap bubble. Housed in a double-wide trailer, dazzled by the material plenty on store shelves yet struggling to make ends meet, and hemmed in by their illegal status, they grasp after a security that remains forever out of reach.

Ultimately, their gnawing dissatisfaction turns inward, causing them to damage each other. Octavio pulls Alejandro out of school, putting him to work in a chain-link fence factory. The young man, bitter over his lost education, brings home his co-worker (and, secretly, his lover) Jeremy, installing him as his "roommate." Erica, apparently leaning toward a nonbinary identity, spars with Maria Ximena over her tomboy ways and her friendship with Jeremy, savagely dismissed as "that little gay boy." Then their fragile existence implodes: Alejandro is killed in an accident and Maria Ximena is last seen careening toward disaster with her truck-driver lover, leaving the others, stunned with grief, to pick up the pieces. Then there's that explicit sex tape, which threatens to blow up what is left of this splintered clan.

It's a big, messy, ambitious tale of family dysfunctions spiked with critiques of US immigration policy, homophobia, and capitalism, loaded with scenic surprises and a cascade of video and sound effects. The result is exhausting and overwrought. "Octavio, this is straight out of your favorite telenovela," says Maria Ximena, accusing her ex of attempted homicide. Really, however, the entire play feels like a telenovela, packed with more seething emotions and bitter twists of fate than one can possibly take in.

The playwright, Victor I. Cazares, cleverly unspools the action on a neutral plain where the past, present, and future bump up against each other and the characters' imaginations run wild. It's a strategy that allows room for caustic commentary; as Maria Ximena notes, "I'm from Mexico. When our interest rates get too high, we just start a new currency and then leave the country." Expressing her gratitude to Walmart for furnishing her home inexpensively, she is told by a voice on the PA system, "You're welcome, uninsured damsel in economic and psychic distress." There are occasional flashes of poignancy, for example when Erica, blindsided by the tragedies surrounding her, muses, "I want to be a television show that everybody loves. A show that will never get cancelled." And, of course, with so many conflicts constantly on the boil, one can't help wondering what will happen next.

But there's too much of everything and it's anybody's guess what, if anything, is meant to matter most. (The program includes a reading list, of more than 40 volumes, that "acknowledges and names some of the key textual, aesthetic, and theoretical sources that have inspired and informed this production." It takes a, shall we say, self-confident playwright to offer theatregoers such an extensive syllabus.) Cazares has so many points to make that the drama never finds a focus; ideas are restated, constantly, and the characters come and go, shouting their positions yet failing to develop over time. The action is lumbered with sidebars: the Barbie Doll-obsessed Jeremy dressed as a fairy named Miroslava, the Meteor Fairy (meteors are yet another item on Cazares' lengthy list of metaphors); an imaginary TV show, Crazy Inspectors, starring Erica and Jeremy; various other sequences detailing video games, fantasies, and more television.

Rubén Polendo's production piles on the video and audio effects, supplied by Kelly Colburn, Alex Hawthorn, and Justin Nestor, of Theater Mitu, who are collectively credited with "technology design." These images include passing landscapes, amateur porn, toy montages, endless shopping aisles, a tower of television screens, and pieces of merchandise that pop up, complete with prices, to the ring of cash registers. Other sound effects include overlapping voices, harp glissandos, store announcements, a cacophony of coughs, and whinnying horse. It's an impressive display of technical expertise but, somewhere, amid all the flash and clatter, the underwritten characters get hopelessly lost.

Among the cast members, Elia Monte-Brown makes the strongest impression as Maria Ximena, who is alternately tough-talking, tender, and desperate to escape her loved ones. Raúl Castillo invests Octavio with a thoroughly believable weariness mixed with frustration over his (to him) willful relatives. Bianca "b" Norwood's Erica is loaded with energy but in need of some diction work; certain key speeches are hard to make out. The one-named actor Clew, tasked with playing both Alejandro and Jesse, struggles to give each character a distinct profile; Jesse's wig is the only way to tell them apart. As Jeremy, Ryan J. Haddad is, as always, a real-attention getter, but he ends up stealing focus from other, more central, characters.

In addition to the parade of tech effects, Bretta Gerecke's monumental set design packs the stage with large, rusty containers that open to reveal, among other things, the front grille of a truck, store shelves backed with Barbie Dolls, and the interior of the family's trailer. Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting achieves any number of pleasingly subtle effects. Gerecke's solid costume designs are supplemented by Mondo Guerra's specialty outfits, which include that intentionally tacky princess getup for Jeremy/Miraslava -- a kind of discount house version of Glinda, the Good Witch -- and an even more outlandish getup -- a black-and-white haute couture ensemble made of bar codes -- for Maria Ximena's eleventh-hour appearance as "Walmartina."

The latter scene, which tellingly reveals how the seeds of the family's destruction were planted on their first day in the US, is one of several that might pass for the play's ending. When the finale finally comes, it is, after all the noise, surprisingly quiet and thoughtful. It's something of a relief, to be sure, but it doesn't solve this production's manifold problems. The program notes that american (tele)visions had its first reading fourteen years ago. That it remains, so many years later, in such obvious need of cutting and shaping is not a good sign. --David Barbour


(29 September 2022)

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