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Theatre in Review: The Hours are Feminine (INTAR)

Hiram Delgado, Maribel Martinez. Photo: Valerie Terranova

In his program note, the Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera calls The Hours are Feminine "this lost, realistic, almost old-school play that contained little of the sexy, so-called 'magic realism' I was best known for." He has every right to his feelings -- he wrote it ten years ago only to see it languish in a limbo of readings and workshops -- but don't be fooled: Despite its classic structure and mid-twentieth-century time frame, it is a remarkably pertinent drama about a subject with which America continues to struggle. It begins slowly but marches with purpose toward a surprisingly moving windup.

Based on an incident from Rivera's childhood, The Hours are Feminine overturns the conventions of the standard immigrant drama. You won't find any kitchen sinks or street gangs; the cramped apartments are offstage, being the property of Charlie, an elderly, grizzled Italian slumlord living in rural Long Island circa 1960. True to form, he rents the shack on his property -- it's little more than a chicken coop -- to Fernán, who works in a diner; Evalisse, his wife; and Javaín, their young son. It's an uneasy situation at best: Catching Javaín lifting a copy of the Sunday funnies out of a garbage can, Charlie snarls, "I can shoot you for theft, you little PR monkey!" Taking advantage of Evalisse's inexperience with English, he mutters a few indecent words, then bellows, "I said pussy in front of a girl and didn't get my face slapped! A first for old Charlie!"

So much for any good neighbor policy. Evalisse, who regards Americans as a sinister lot -- "They're not good people, son," she tells Javaín. "They don't believe in God, they don't love children, have no morals, and you can't trust them" -- pines for the old days back on the island. Reunited with Fernán after a year's separation, she is a mass of conflicting impulses, nostalgic for a lost way of life yet desperate to move on to something better. Living with Charlie are Little Anthony, the adult son he bullies and belittles, and Mirella, Little Anthony's sassy, wisecracking spouse. Throwing together these six characters creates all sorts of tensions, with the growing friendship between Evalisse and Mirella acting as a kind of safety valve. "Charlie in the Mafia?" laughs Mirella in response to Evalise's frightened query. "Girl, those people have standards.

What Evalisse misses is that Charlie represents an earlier generation of immigrants whose savage struggles for acceptance have left them corroded and bitter. "You survive all the starvation and injustice and violence in life," he says. "The ugly hate on people's faces. The civil war on all the streets of this fuckin' country. I got stabbed once, you know that? A jealous husband got me!" Then again, Evalisse already sees America as a land of corruption, ruefully recalling the fate of her brother "who was wild, ran away from home, and disappeared in the Bronx," adding, "No one knows if he's alive."

But, as he stirs the action with an assault, a surprise pregnancy, a hurricane, and a shocking fatal accident, Rivera also subtly rearranges the state of play: Charlie's family may have money and a certain amount of power, but it is crumbling: Charlie is a wreck, Little Anthony is riddled with self-disgust, and Mirella is in rebellion, refusing to present the men with the children they expect. In contrast, Evalisse and Fernán are increasingly on the up and up, holding firm as a family as they lay the foundation of a better life.

Rivera's direction is a tad awkward at times but the cast is solid, especially when Maribel Martinez's Evalisse and Sara Koviak's Mirella get down to dishing about life, love, and their man problems. "There's a thing in Little Anthony," Mirella says. "Maybe in all men. It's like a damaged thing, a broken little boy thing, do you know what that is?" Indeed, Evalisse does. (Koviak, who reminds one of Gloria Grahame, enlivens each of her scenes with her breezy manner. It's amusing to see Martinez -- always a bright, intelligent presence -- discussing the brand-new birth control pill: "Wait, I heard rumors of this in Puerto Rico ... something very bad was happening to women ..." Indeed, she heard all about it as one of the cast members of Las Borinqueñas, a historical drama about the pill's Puerto Rican trials, staged at Ensemble Studio Theatre last month.) There's also good work from Hiram Delgado, a charmer as Fernán; Dan Grimaldi, who finds something genuinely pitiable in the ghastly Charlie; Robert Montano as Little Anthony, frantically trying to keep the peace in his fractious household; and Donovan Monzón-Sanders as winsome Javaín, forever worried about (and secretly thrilled by) that American invention the electric chair.

Like Ensemble Studio Theatre, its neighbor on 52nd Street, INTAR always delivers striking production designs on the slimmest of budgets. Izzy Fields' outdoor set, defined by two very different façades, perfectly sets the play's tone. Christine Watanabe's lighting is filled with attractive time-of-day looks, and David Remedios' sound design employs a broad range of effects, including car motors, sports broadcasts, and the theme from I Love Lucy. All three designers work up a perfectly upsetting hurricane sequence; given the size of INTAR's auditorium, it can fairly be called a tempest in a teacup, but it is a fine example of design collaboration. Lisa Renée Jordan's costumes are detailed, right down to the grease stains on Fernán's uniform; they're also thoughtful: Note the difference between Evalisse's homemade day dresses and Mariella's chic patio outfits.

The real success of The Hours are Feminine lies in how a six-character drama captures this country's conflicts about immigration, then and now. One of its key insights is how yesterday's oppressed becomes tomorrow's oppressor. Charlie has seemingly learned little from his struggles, choosing to profit off the misery of his tenants. Fernán recalls a customer, a "big old Irish cop...[who] said a black family from the city bought a house in Holbrook. The whole diner got quiet. Somebody cursed. The cop said, 'Something must be done! Next thing you know, the damn Puerto Ricans are gonna move in!'" Later on, something is done, and it's not pretty. Still, by the finale, Evalisse, Fernán, and Javaín are on their way, if America doesn't do to them what it did to Charlie. But that, I guess, is a subject for another play. --David Barbour

(23 May 2024)

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