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Theatre in Review: Recent Alien Abductions (The Play Company/Walkerspace)

Vivia Font, Daniel Duque. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

We're used to plays -- especially family dramas -- beginning with a character entering and, using direct address, setting the stage for us. Such speeches tend to be on the brief side and are usually loaded with essential information about the characters and their milieu. Recent Alien Abductions, however, begins with a monologue so lengthy that one starts to wonder if what we're seeing is really a solo show and that the other actors listed in the program are a collection of red herrings. The opening speech counts for roughly twelve percent of this brief work -- it is listed as Act I of an intermissionless three-act play -- and it goes on and on, to diminishing effect. (About halfway through, I began privately thinking of it as The Prologue That Ate Walkerspace.) But hang on, for playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas is setting us up; without it, Recent Alien Abductions might not be the affecting -- even haunting -- work that it is.

I hasten to add that the slightly soporific effect of the opening isn't the fault of Rafael Sardina, as Álvaro, a young man of Latin extraction, who delivers it with unwavering intensity in his best Rod Serling murmur. The speech focuses on the twenty-fifth episode of The X Files, the endlessly receding chamber of mysteries that captivated its hardcore fanbase across eleven seasons: The twisting, enigmatic plot led fans to spread conspiracy theories like an epidemic of blooming algae; here Álvaro finds sinister meanings in, among other things, an episode set in Puerto Rico but clearly shot on location in Los Angeles, and the character of a Puerto Rican teenager played by an actor with a glaring Mexican accent.

Whether these are the typical continuity errors of a network series or evidence of an evil plot, I leave to you; however, the monologue takes a personal turn as Álvaro projects himself into the episode, fantasizing that he is the lover of Fox Mulder, the character played by David Duchovny. We also get a sense of Álvaro as a lonely gay teenager in 1990s Puerto Rico, glued to his television set, finding some sort of escape while watching Mulder and his associate, Scully, scour the globe for evidence of alien plots. Hovering around the edges of this account is Néstor, Álvaro's older brother, who interpolates such disturbing thoughts as "People only fall in love with those they don't trust" and "Suffering changes the way we desire." And, noting that he shares his first name with the young man in the episode, Álvaro muses, "I can't let go of the idea that Álvaro was abducted and is alone now, in captivity, afraid" -- leaving open the question of which Álvaro he means.

After this taxing opening, the action jumps ahead to 2016, where the plot unfolds across a landscape of loss. Álvaro, who, many years earlier, ran away to New York, is dead, a suicide. He left behind a legacy of Off Off Broadway performance pieces, each of which was built around an episode of The X Files. A young woman named Patria has arrived, seeking permission from the family to publish Álvaro's scripts, thereby rescuing them from otherwise certain obscurity. Patria's mission gets a tense, suspicious reception from Néstor and his tough, unsentimental wife, Ana, who are the caretakers of Olga, the ailing, addled, matriarch, and the air is thick with grievance. For example, Néstor sees a profound rejection of the family in Álvaro's choice of cremation. (He also blames Álvaro for not waiting until Olga was dead to do away with himself.) He has never forgiven Álvaro for stealing his pit bull, Monster. (Néstor was training the animal to participate in dogfights, and Álvaro rescued it, finding it a new home, but never mind.) And yet, for all his recriminations, Néstor's heart is eaten up with longing. Recalling the photo of them as boys that he mailed to Álvaro in New York, he recalls, "I thought, oh, maybe one day my brother will let me hug him again and I'll smell that pomade -- it will be like smelling our childhood. Nothing. I never heard back." And yet, despite such bursts of nostalgia, the brothers are described as being "like Clorox and ammonia," a combination that is inherently explosive.

From here, things get really ugly, in ways that I'd better not mention, except to note that Néstor has anger management problems that have apparently gotten him into trouble with the law; that Patria isn't above engaging in some extremely dubious maneuvers in order to get permission to publish; and that the family nurses an unspeakable secret. All of these facts, and others, come tumbling out in a series of brief, elliptical scenes that have a powerfully cumulative effect. You can pick at certain aspects of Recent Alien Abductions, but it's undeniable that Cortiñas understands how certain families protect themselves, in this case abusing Álvaro and driving him away, preferring to feel abandoned by him.

This is a tricky script to stage, in part because the scenes often end without any kind of button, but Cortiñas, who also directed, has come up with a workable plan in which the actors enter, assume their starting positions, and, with a collective nod, assume their characters; similarly, when a scene ends, they drop out of character and depart in full audience view. (Alas, a scene of physical violence is among the fakest-looking in recent memory.) The cast is unfailingly strong. Daniel Duque-Estrada, new to New York, captures Néstor's barely controlled fury; the moment when he finally explodes is likely to make you jump. Vivia Font keeps a cool eye on the proceedings as Ana, to whom are assigned the details of Olga's daily care, a job she accepts, if not joyfully. Yetta Gottesman is touching as a next-door neighbor who knows why Álvaro fled to New York and is racked with guilt about it. Ronete Levenson makes Patria into a crafty, deadpan intruder with some sharp elbows of her own. Mia Katigbak etches another fine portrayal as Olga, who goes in and out of the present. (About Katigbak: This is her third or fourth role this season; only three weeks ago, she was doing fine work in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. How does she do it? She remains one of the great glories of the Off-Broadway scene.)

The production unfolds on Adam Rigg's spare, wide set, its white walls backed by tropical greenery, with Amith Chandrashaker's lighting to provide suitable time-of-day looks. Fabian Fidel Aguilar's costumes are solid, and Mikaal Sulaiman's original music casts an appropriately dark mood; his sound effects include birdsong and an approaching car.

Sardina returns for the final scene, in which we see another of Álvaro's performance pieces, staged with Néstor and Olga wearing masks. This time, he directly confronts the dark heart of his family's existence in a confrontation that casts the previously pitiable Olga in a starkly different light. Complaints aside, this is a striking work by a new talent who finds ways of avoiding the sentimental pitfalls often associated with this type of family drama. An alien in his own home, Álvaro knows plenty about conspiracies of silence. -- David Barbour


(4 March 2019)

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