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Theatre in Review: 72 Miles to Go.../The Artist Will Be With You in a Moment

Top: Bobby Moreno, Tyler Alvarez. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. Bottom: Joel Jeske. Photo: Richard Termine.

In 72 Miles to Go, at Roundabout Theatre's Laura Pels Theatre, playwright Hilary Bettis tells a simple, plaintive tale guaranteed to shred the conscience of anyone who sees it. In constructing her dead-on indictment of American immigration policy, she invents a family divided by citizenship. Some years earlier, Billy, a Unitarian minister from Tucson, was in the desert, leaving water for migrants making their way illegally into this country. There he found Anita and Christian, her young son. Billy, who is Chicano but whose family has long lived in the US, ultimately married Anita; they had two more children, Eva and Aaron. They are a close, loving clan, but they are separated by the distance of the play's title.

As the play begins, Anita is living in a shelter in Nogales, Mexico, having been deported. She is making a request for reentry, hoping to win a humanitarian parole, and she communicates with her family via cellphone. Her request is denied, and she is banned from the US for ten years. The play follows Billy and the kids over the course of the next eight years -- the action spans 2008-16 -- facing bitter challenges at every turn. Eva works two waitress jobs to help keep them afloat, eventually entering nursing school. Aaron, shy and a tad immature for his age, grows up and enlists, ending up in Kabul, an experience that transforms him, not for the better. Of them all, Christian is the hardest hit: Not a citizen but never having learned Spanish, he seemingly belongs nowhere; he only learned about his lack of papers when Billy blocked him from attempting to join the military. He has scraped together a living doing construction jobs, supporting his wife and kids, but his days are marked by fear of exposure and deportation.

As Billy says in one of his sermons, "Why don't we realize how profound and beautiful and sacred these everyday moments are until they're gone?" 72 Miles to Go is constructed out of such moments, each of them revelatory of the family's struggle to thrive in an unjust system. Billy gets caught trying to smuggle Anita back in, gets branded a felon, and is made to wear an ankle bracelet for a period of years. Eva, the valedictorian of her high school class, departs from her graduation speech to unemotionally tell the truth -- "The first time my mom was deported I was twelve" -- before concluding on a note of canned optimism. Billy and Anita stage an anniversary dinner over the phone, during which she confesses about her children: "Sometimes I think they stole our future." Christian puts himself through a seemingly endless DACA application process, but the sight and sound of a nearby police cruiser can leave him shaking in terror.

Jo Bonney's direction strikes exactly the right note, never sensationalizing anything, letting the facts speak for themselves. In this, she is aided by a fine cast. Triney Sandoval's Billy -- innately kind, a fund of terrible Dad jokes, forever clinging to the thinnest of hopes -- is a pillar of decency, even when his decisions make things worse for his loved ones. Jacqueline Guillén's Eva is the family pragmatist, making sure the cupboard is stocked regardless of what crisis is boiling over; she also toughens into a woman who has trouble forming relationships. Tyler Alvarez takes Aaron from sensitive boyhood to hard-shelled maturity; a quietly scathing monologue about his tour of duty leaves one wondering about his future. If Anita exists mostly as an offstage voice, Maria Elena Ramirez nevertheless makes her into a vivid presence. The standout, however, is Bobby Moreno as Christian, helplessly trying to hold his family together in the face of forces over which he has no control.

The production design is well-suited to this melancholy occasion. Rachel Hauck's set, depicting the interior of the family home, is a study in desolation. Lap Chi Chu fills the stage with a variety of sunlight washes and nighttime looks; he also frames with notable precision a couple of scenes set inside autos. Emilio Sosa's costumes accurately track the changes that affect the characters across the better part of a decade. Elisheba Ittoop's sound design includes a number of necessary effects, including TV news reports and Edith Piaf singing "La Vie en Rose."

Bettis finally arranges a reunion -- however brief -- for the entire family in a final scene that tantalizingly leaves open any number of questions about the characters' futures. It also includes the saddest words that can pass between parent and child: "I hope I never see you again." If it doesn't break your heart, you haven't been listening.

In terrible times, laughter remains the most reliable tonic, which brings us to The Artist Will Be With You in a Moment, a small-scale but lively evening of foolery produced by the group Parallel Exit. It begins on an original note: We enter the auditorium at ART/New York Theatres and are invited to peruse an exhibit of work, allegedly by Joel Jeske, the evening's star. These include a collection of objects that have hit Jeske's head -- among them, a coconut and a baseball bat -- and a collage of three rusty, dented tin cans. (Of the latter, we are told, confidentially, that the other ninety-seven cans, which complete the work, have been stolen and the management is most eager to get them back.) Jeske's chef d'oeuvre is "Usher," which consists of a nice young woman, dressed as an usher, standing in place. The accompanying title card notes that the artwork was created using mixed media: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Prices of the objects in the exhibit range from the mid-three figures to over a hundred thousand dollars. The price for "Usher" is negotiable.

The program also functions as the catalog for the exhibit and is filled with ripely pretentious art-world commentary. The coconut-and-baseball-bat piece is termed "a searingly personal work." We learn that another piece, accurately titled "Rat Trap Popsicle," addresses "the complicated relationship between pleasure, pain, and the American consumption of junk food." Jeske's ear for this sort of nonsense is so accurate that the words are worthy of a New Yorker humor piece.

Jeske, who remains motionlessly seated on a pedestal during the first part of the evening, is dressed in a red suit with a knee-length coat, sporting a hat lifted from a painting by Magritte. (The costume designer is Oana Botez). His face -- a long, long oval ending in a chin that points downward -- has a light coating of clown white; depending on its angle, it can signal an officious state of expectation, the dregs of disappointment, or stabbing rage. The latter happens whenever one of his best lines is stepped on by the drum's rimshot, which is often.

The evening consists of various fun-and-games exercises with the audience; over the course of an hour, Jeske enlists something like twenty volunteers. One of them, engaged in trying to get Jeske down off that pedestal, really has his work cut out for him. The star also brings up three patrons at a time, gives them drawing assignments, and offers fatuous bits of criticism, along with A-to-F grades. Pulling two more victims out of the audience, he engages them in a choreographed walk across the stage, set to music so doom-laden it makes "Volga Boatmen" sound like a lively foxtrot in comparison. Your correspondent was enlisted to toss a hat onto Jeske's head; it took some doing, but we finally got there.

It's fair to say that Jeske, who belongs to the same tradition as Bill Irwin and David Shiner yet retains an identity all his own, keeps the audience in a steady state of amusement, and one imagines that Mark Lonergan's direction has a great deal to do with maintaining a buoyant mood throughout. Maruti Evans' gallery setting is fine, as is his lighting, which makes good use of four overhead strips to create a variety of color washes. If you enjoy Irwin and Shiner, you will most likely get more than a few laughs out of Jeske -- and who couldn't use more of them? --David Barbour

(11 March 2020)

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