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Theatre in Review: Tell Hector I Miss Him (Atlantic Theater Company Stage Two)

Alexander Flores, Talene Monahon. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Paola Lázaro's new play zeroes in on a fraught, ad hoc community in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There's Mostro, who is middle-aged and runs a bodega; he is hoping to have a baby with his wife, Samira. Little does he know, Samira is conducting a steamy affair with the rather younger Jeison. (In the play's opening sequence, we are made privy to their profane offstage groanings.) Jeison has his hands full with his brother, Palito, who claims to have been born with fetal alcohol syndrome; in any case, he's an undsciplined child in a man's body, constantly accusing others of stealing his stash of money (which remains intact) and physically lashing out at Tati, his sometime girlfriend. Tati is best friends with Malena, the local bombshell, who captures the amorous attentions of men and women alike. At the moment, she is being pursued by the 16-year-old Isis, who has just awakened to her lesbian identity. Also prominent in the cast's younger generation is Toño, recently kicked out of school for sexually harassing a teacher. As it happens, that's the least of his problems: His father is long gone and he is stifled by his do-nothing alcoholic mother, who ignores his suicide threats. Adding to his confusion, he becomes entangled with La Gata, a refugee from a US cruise ship searching for her drug-addict father. She got the name "La Gata" because she communicates with others using only the word "meow."

And we're just getting started: There are several other plot lines percolating through the evening. Lázaro, who, in 2014, gave us To the Bone, a taut drama about immigrants working in a Midwestern poultry processing plant, does not lack for ambition. Here she deploys a parade of characters to paint a mural of Puerto Rican life, and it's not a pretty picture. The characters are, largely, just getting by with little or no hope of their lives getting better; at least a couple of them appear to be homeless. Boredom is seeping in like so much mildew. Drugs and liquor are consumed in industrial quantities.

And, strangely, very little of it seems to matter -- largely, I think, because Tell Hector I Miss Him is so overstuffed with plots and characters that they crowd each other out. Given the play's length of roughly two hours and ten minutes, none of the many situations get the time and attention needed to become emotionally engaging or suspenseful. The characters are forever having to bring us up to speed about the status of their problems. And, as soon as something interesting starts to happen to anyone, they are whisked off stage to make room for somebody else. Watching the play is rather like tuning in to a telenovela halfway through its run: You're forever trying to catch up, and are never clear what you're supposed to care about.

Not that all of the play's plots are created equal. The marital problems of Mostro and Samira lead to some fairly powerful confrontations, and Toño's psychological tussles with his mother have their harrowing moments. But the La Gata storyline is well beyond the pale of credibility -- you could die from cuteness watching it -- as is true of Isis' constant wooing of Malena. Some of the attempts at humor are pretty dire: In one lengthy scene, Hugo, a young man with both a drinking and a drug problem, tries to extricate himself from a public bench -- aided by El Mago, a kind of magician of the streets -- on which he has soiled himself. In one of the stranger scenes of the theatre season, Isis, Malena, and Tati pull down their pants and reveal their genitals to each other -- in order to reassure Tati, who insists that hers looks like "lean ground beef."

There's also the issue of the general poverty of language shared by the characters, with the exception of Isis, who carries on like Cyrano de Bergerac in full pursuit of Roxanne. If anyone were to do a variorum edition of the script of Tell Hector I Miss Him, analyzing the makeup of the language, it seems likely that the words "shit" and "fuck" -- used as nouns, verbs, adjectives, whatever -- would constitute at least a third of the dialogue. The author's ear may be accurate but the results become tiresome.

Uder the direction of David Mendizábal, the actors go at their characters in hammer-and-tongs fashion, working themselves up into emotional lathers in ten seconds or less. There are a few standouts. Selenis Leyva makes the most of the moment when Samira rebels against her husband's tyrannical rules. Alexander Flores makes Toño's psychological claustrophobia seem authentic. Yadira Guevara-Prip makes Isis' romantic flights seem grounded in reality.

For some reason, a play that is set in various locations features a set, designed by Clint Ramos, consisting of two ancient stone walls separated by a staircase -- giving the impression that the action is unfolding in a dungeon. Providing local color is a narrow band of video screens above the stage, showing an image of the ocean that varies by the time of day and weather conditions, depending on the scene. Eric Southern's lighting subtly modulates itself from scene to scene. Dede M. Ayite's costumes suggest that she has a strong understanding of the characters. Jesse Mandapat's sound design features a playlist of Latino pop and rock numbers that bridge the scenes.

But Tell Hector I Miss Him is both too much, in terms of characters and narrative lines, and too little, in terms of substance and emotional involvement. There's a lot to stay about the problems of Puerto Rican society these days -- a crashing economy, ineffective government, and a decades-long ambivalent relationship with the United States. Another playwright will have to address them, I guess. -- David Barbour

(9 February 2017)

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