Speak Spanish to Me at the Herberger Theater leaves Robrt L. Pela looking for the exit

The most sparkling bit of dialogue I heard the other night at Actors Theatre's production of Speak Spanish to Me came from the charming lady seated on my left. At intermission, she leaned across the empty seat between us and, indicating my notebook, asked, "Are you reviewing, or plagiarizing?"

I most certainly was not stealing a single syllable from this dank flatus of a play. While I've seen my share of inferior programs over the past decade and a half, I've certainly never seen a professional production so utterly bereft of anything appealing. The acting was embarrassingly bad; the characters appallingly one-dimensional; and the dialogue straight out of a junior high creative writing class.

It's not impossible to understand why Actors Theatre chose Bernardo Solano's tacky time capsule to end its current season. Speak Spanish to Me is about brown people, so — with immigration issues still making daily headlines — the company appears to be timely in addressing issues faced by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Also, it's set at ASU, so it's got a local angle that's probably meant to make it attractive to, I don't know — ASU alumni? People who live in Tempe?

The story, cobbled together from steaming chunks of Afterschool Specials and Lifetime Movies of the Week, makes only a stab at issues of classism and racism before taking a sharp left turn toward the end of the interminable mess that is Act One. Solano tacks a dramatic twist involving teen pregnancy and incurable illness onto a tale already sagging under the weight of mawkish hoo-ha about a middle-class Jewish girl who falls in love with a wealthy Mexican-American. There's more, but trust me — you don't want to read about it.

Director Matthew Weiner appears to have instructed his actors to stand still and holler all their dialogue at one another, which doesn't make any of Solano's endless exposition any more entertaining. All this shouting takes place in front of a giant video screen that's alternately filled with publicity photos of teens cavorting on ASU's campus and live video-cam shots of the action taking place on the stage. I guess all this multimedia nonsense is meant to distract us from the script's half-baked comedy and its indecisive story line, which raises questions about important issues — class and race and a woman's right to choose — but never reaches any kind of conclusion about any of them.

I was already distracted by the terrifically bad acting from the show's five-member cast. Richard Trujillo trudged all the way back to Phoenix from his new home in Los Angeles to scream his way through this dreck, which finds him dressing as Elvis in an excruciating sequence set in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Jenn Banda's performance as a slutty, unscrupulous college professor passes without a whiff of originality, and Cathan Bordyn's profoundly annoying hip-hop kid — one of those unfortunate white boys who affects the speech and deportment of a black ghetto rapper — made me want to slit my wrists.

As the young lovers — one white and Jewish, the other brown and wealthy — Brittany Schoenborn and Marcelino Quinonez offer occasional hints that, in a play with some substance, they might have something pleasant to offer. Here, they're merely two more people flapping their arms and squawking out Solano's mind-numbing tale about a bunch of dimwits trapped in Middle America, where getting knocked up and having dead parents is apparently reason enough to torture a roomful of theatergoers for more than two hours. During the seemingly endless section of the play where Schoenborn and Quinonez videotape one another talking about the first time they had sex, I nearly bolted from the theater. Speak Spanish to Me runs for five more performances, and I strongly suggest that you avoid each of them.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela