I had high hopes for Guillermo Reyes' Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown. The show has the reputation of being very hip, and PlayWright's Theatre, where Men on the Verge is playing, has -- in its first full season -- proven itself a reliable source of arty entertainment.
I wasn't disappointed. The production, directed by Reyes himself, is a bracing demonstration of writing, directing and acting talent. Actor Andres Alcala, who plays each part, illuminates this award-winning collection of monologues about the immigration status of a group of gay Latino men.
With simple costume changes -- usually involving nothing more than a hat or a different shirt -- Alcala transforms himself into a parade of Latinos: a 30-year-old fellow who, having outgrown his former "kept boy" status and been dumped by his elderly benefactor, realizes he loves the old man; a Valley guy who's bleached his skin and Anglicized his name in order to make it in Hollywood; an "openly asexual" Chilean psychotic who's interviewing prospective roommates. These stories are bookended by Federico, a goofball who's billed as "The Gay Little Immigrant That Could," and whose letters home to his Mamacita are meant to indicate the progress of the gay émigré in general.
These characters all appear on a great Mondrian-like grid of a set, clotted with the detritus of each of the men's lives. Alcala removes a prop or an article of clothing as each vignette begins, using it in the sketch and then discarding it, until the scaffolding that frames the stage is bare.
Jeremy Ward's lighting design, one of the more subtly expressive I've seen on recent trips to the theater, helps delineate character and mood without being obtrusive. And Thomas Jay's sound design, with its innumerable song cues designed to describe the forthcoming scene, is faultless.
As for Reyes' staging, it's the patented article -- straightforward, uncampy, and, ironically, all-American in its foursquare ingenuousness. (A program note explains that this production is inspired by the staging by Joseph Megel, director of the play's original productions, so perhaps some credit is due him.) Reyes fluidly choreographs the often brief scenes. Several costume changes take place behind scrims, some right onstage, and each of them ends with an entrance that helps delineate the character in some subtle way.
I try to avoid using terms like "tour de force" and "luminous," but these would not be exaggerations when used to describe Alcala's performances here. He displays an amazing range, capturing the nuances of an old Cuban refugee and a terminally ill flamenco dancer (his final, astonishing metamorphosis) with equal aplomb. This rubber-faced actor changes the timbre and tenor of his voice, throws on a fedora, and shifts effortlessly from playing a teenaged greaser (who's fallen in love with his immigrant, missionary cousin) to an old Cuban restaurateur who recalls the concentration camps of his homeland, where he was labeled "undesirable" because he is gay. Alcala occasionally has the too-calculated delivery of the standup comic, but he eschews the entertainer's habit of using charm as a mask. Watching Alcala perform is such a pleasure that the play's few flaws are inconspicuous.
If Reyes' structure is necessarily repetitive and at times a bit too predictable, it captures -- like many fictionalized memoirs -- the vagaries of the groups of people it's meant to represent. Reyes balances gay stereotypes -- Streisand worshipers, kept boys, HIV-positive drag queens -- with unlikely folks such as the aging Cuban queer activist or the butch Brooklyn teen who isn't particularly tormented by his sexuality. To be fair, the playwright also presents stereotypes of Hispanic culture, each of them embodied in an immigrant devoted to "the American way," even when that "way" is kicking their asses.
Despite their rather specific cultural and ethnic identities, Reyes has created universal characters, and wisely turned them over to an astonishingly talented young actor who -- to use another phrase I try to avoid -- lights up the stage with his delightful performance.
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