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Theatre in Review: Fade (Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theatre)

Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo James Leynse

In Fade, two Mexican-Americans find themselves lost in the television production jungle. Lucia is a budding novelist from Chicago; unable to deliver that second book to her publisher, and running low on funds, she signs on as a staff writer on a turgid network cop drama. When we meet her, she is nervously moving into her new office -- decorating it with dolls and toy action figures. This is the first -- but not the last -- indication that she may not be a fully formed adult.

Indeed, Lucia, a bundle of nerves, bungles her first interaction with Abel, a member of the building's cleaning staff. She initially speaks to him in Spanish, and he responds in like manner. Later, she is bemused to discover that he is fluent in English. "Me assuming you speak Spanish wasn't like an insult," she says. "It was like a good thing. I do it because... I mean, it's actually what I'm most comfortable with. And it's a little like we're in this together when I do it, you know what I mean?" Abel's response: "We're in what together?" Anyway, he adds, "I just try not to speak [Spanish] at work, you know?" When Lucia asks the reason for this policy, he replies, "I don't know. Maybe because this is America?"

Abel would do well to keep his head down and stick to business, but Lucia is desperate for someone to talk to, in any language. Alone in Los Angeles and just out of a relationship, she is notably ill at ease in her new position, not least because she has to deal with poisonous colleagues who corner her in the office kitchen and whisper, "You do know you're the diversity hire, right?" She pushes back in staff meetings about the show's generic depiction of ethnics, telling the room that a new female character "has to be from somewhere. You can't just be from the Planet Latinia!" She is also scandalized when her boss, John, summons her to his office, handing her the phone and asking her to inform the housemaid that, as per John's wife, all the family's periodicals should be fanned out on the coffee table.

As galling as all this may be, Lucia's problems are strictly of the first-world sort, especially when compared to Abel's. They are separated by nationality, class, money. Although she denies it, Lucia is a "fresa," a Spanish slang term for a certain type of wealthy, pampered princess; born to privilege in Mexico, waxing nostalgic about the maid who raised her, informing the scornful Abel that, these days, everyone has a maid. Abel is American-born, an ex-Marine and a working stiff whose intense devotion to his young daughter led to an ugly confrontation with his irresponsible ex-wife and a domestic abuse charge with a six-month jail sentence attached. Lucia, however, is desperate for companionship; she works at drawing Abel out, pulling him away from his duties for chats over pizza and beer, asking him for career advice, and pumping him for the details of his life. Of course, she swears, she would never use anything he told her -- even if the script she is working on really, really needs to be more "multidimensional" and "authentic."

The playwright, Tanya Saracho, should study those words closely, for Lucia, far from being multidimensional, is as one-note as they come, a shrill, needy user -- and clueless to boot. (Looking at the tattoo on Abel's arm, she asks him, "What does 'Semper Fi' mean?") She hasn't the faintest idea of boundaries, thinking nothing of plying Abel with alcohol while he is on the clock, urging him to avoid his supervisor and neglect his job in the name of feeding her background material. "One day, someone's gonna catch me sitting and it's not you they're gonna fire," Abel points out. "I won't let anyone fire you," she insists -- strange words from someone who talks endlessly about how marginalized and helpless she feels.

Saracho aims for a kind of Odd Couple-style clash of quirkily opposed personalities, but the relationship between Lucia and Abel is entirely one-sided and too obviously headed for a crack-up. Lucia is remarkably grating, her self-aggrandizing nature blazingly obvious; one keeps waiting for Abel to wise up and evade her grasp. In any case, the action is as predictable as the most hackneyed network series; there's little to do but wait for the betrayal that will surely come.

Jerry Ruiz's direction hasn't been able to solve these basic script problems, and it's possible that he has pushed the actress Annie Dow too far in the direction of making Lucia so annoying. Despite the character's motormouth tendencies, she is given very little to say that is amusing, and her late-in-the-evening crisis of conscience, when she inadvertently -- well, sort of inadvertently -- gets one of her writing colleagues fired, plays almost entirely false. And, when she makes a choice that severely damages her relationship with Abel, there's no payoff, since her innate selfishness has been obvious all along.Eddie Martinez fares much better as Abel, filling in the blanks of character so expertly that one comes to feel one knows him well. He also makes the most of the script's rare moments of wit, informing Lucia, who refers to jail as "the slammer," that the term has been out of date "since Elvis was in Jailhouse Rock." In a line that got the biggest laugh of the performance, commiserating with Lucia about her awful boss, he notes, "The language of Assholiness is universal." Martinez is also totally expert at suggesting major emotional shifts with a single word or tiny gesture; that he builds such a complex, compelling character only makes Dow's Lucia all the more difficult to take.

Strangely, even though Saracho has worked on a number of broadcast and video dramas, her depiction of the industry is, at times, scarcely credible. When we hear a bit of her first credited script, the dialogue is loaded with profanities that would never make it past a network censor. Abel seemingly lives on the job, passing by Lucia's office at all hours of the day and night, the better to consult with her on her troubled career. For that matter, it's standard practice in any corporate setting for the janitorial staff to do its work late at night, not during office hours. And, of course, there's the essentially shopworn nature of the material, which is not freshened up by adding a timely racial angle. Writers began complaining about Hollywood's corruptive effects approximately two days after the first Mack Sennett two-reeler hit the nickelodeons. Hearing Lucia utter such clich├ęd complaints as "God, what this place can do to you -- it can suck out your soul, sell it to the devil for a good parking spot," all I could think was, Honey, with writing like that, you'll go far in television.

The production is otherwise fairly slick, with Mariana Sanchez's office set -- all gray tones and enormous windows covered with Levolor blinds -- looking thoroughly like the real thing. Amith Chandrakshaker's lighting gets a surprising number of subtly varied time-of-day looks, using the set's two practical lamps to good effect. Carisa Kelly's costumes are fine until the last scene when, instead of suggesting that Lucia has become a soulless corporate whore, she looks like she has joined the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. M. L. Dogg's sound evocatively uses a playlist of Latino pop/rock songs to bridge the scenes.

Two-handers like Fade are among the most difficult kinds of plays to write, if only because there is such a limited number of options: Either the characters will fall in love or they will fall out; there are variations, but not many. Surprise is difficult to achieve even in the best circumstances; here Saracho all but telegraphs her intentions. If a character is going to sell her soul, she shouldn't put it up for auction quite so obviously. -- David Barbour

(9 February 2017)

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