Urbane Sprawl

It's too bad that theater audiences aren't usually interested in the evolution of a play. If they were, the new Guillermo Reyes comedy, now playing at Arizona State University's Lyceum Theatre, could sell tickets as a specimen of a project that's on its way to being a funny, thought-provoking piece of theater. In the meantime, The Seductions of Johnny Diego is mostly an unpolished work-in-progress by a celebrated young playwright.

Reyes established his reputation as the next big thing with his Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown, a solid hit in New York and Los Angeles, where it drew crowds and copped big awards a few seasons ago. For the past year, Reyes has been playwright-in-residence at Arizona State University, where he rubs elbows with off-Broadway legend Marshall Mason, also an ASU theater-department staffer these days. Would that all this elbow-rubbing had had an impact on Reyes' big, blowzy new comedy, which is chock-a-block with "important issues" and bloated with too many laugh lines.

Johnny Diego is sketch comedy gone berserk. Every conflict has a wacky caste, and each tragedy is enacted by an over-the-top oddball whose every angst-filled trauma ends in a punch line. The problem is not that Reyes can't write feasible farce, but that he doesn't seem to know when to stop. The Seductions of Johnny Diego lays on laughs--or at least laughable situations--until we're overloaded, and is so heaped with commentary that we're never sure what the play is about.

The title character of Johnny Diego (played by guest Equity actor Richard Trujillo) is a Vietnam vet and former barrio boy who returns home to marry Bonita (Andrea Morales), a half-Irish, half-Mexican would-be thespian whose father owns a chain of appliance stores in East L.A. Johnny's dream of marrying into the family business is almost thwarted by Bonita's little brother (Patrick Cavanaugh III), with whom Johnny once had an affair, and her crazed militant sister, Teresa (Neda Tavassoli), who ends up marrying Johnny after Bonita dumps him.

None of this sounds very funny, but the long, tangled tale is played as farce, with Reyes piling one political or social issue onto another and then attempting to wring laughs out of it before galloping on to the next. Reyes skewers assimilation by having Teresa wear titanic, blond Pat Nixon wigs and by making Johnny fall in love with a white woman who's actually a hand puppet. He denounces anti-gay discrimination ("Why do vice cops only arrest you after you go down on them?") and questions organized religion with endless one-liners about the Virgin of Guadalupe and cracks about nuns and Catholic schoolgirls. His characters are not troubled, they're traumatized--so much so that, after a while, their foibles stop being funny and we expect every line of dialogue to be a zippy quip about their horrid lives, each of which represents a different social ill or two.

All the high-speed moralizing makes the play too dense and the pace too frantic to make Johnny Diego memorable. But with a little trimming and a stronger cast, Reyes may have something here. His premise about a Mexican-American family of oddballs trying to fit into Kennedy-era, white-bread society is amusing, and many of his laugh lines sparkle. The problem here is not quality so much as quantity.

"If this were a professional production, I'd definitely do some rewriting," Reyes admits a few days after his play's world premiere at ASU. "As it is now, I'm not stopping to lecture about any of the issues I bring up here. Instead, I use them as the background for a romantic comedy about some confused people."

Like Johnny Diego, Reyes represents a heap of cultural labels but doesn't seem willing to discuss them with any depth. He's a Chilean-born U.S. citizen who's concerned about issues of dictatorship, both political and spiritual, and a gay man with an interest in gender issues. But ask him about these matters and he says only, "There's so much to life, and no simple solutions. If I had the answers to all the problems of the world, I'd write a manifesto, not a comic play."

If playwriting fails him, Reyes might consider a career as a diplomat. Asked about watching the world premiere of his latest play brought to life by acting students, he'll say only that "it's very different than working with professionals," then goes on to praise Trujillo's performance. Actually, all this youthful exuberance helps Johnny Diego, which Reyes began writing when he himself was a college student. Played by more skilled actors, the excesses of this early script may be more apparent; as it is, the earnest acting lends the production a workshop feel, so that we want to forgive its enthusiastic clumsiness.

There are some fresh, funny moments here, many of them courtesy of ASU's fine technical crew. Tiia Torchia's set is like a living thing that grows and twitches before our eyes, eventually becoming a huge, shiny shrine to all of Johnny Diego's excesses. And director Joseph Megel has choreographed some of the best set changes I've seen anywhere, one of them cha-chaed by Kathleen Butler Casselman (who gives an amusing performance as Johnny's spitfire mother-in-law) and a team of testy stagehands.

For now, the principal appeal of The Seductions of Johnny Diego is that it provides some insight into what a play looks like while it's being honed into a production that, given Reyes' past successes, will probably end up playing for years. In the meantime, Johnny Diego chugs along, toting up social ills but saying little about them.

The Seductions of Johnny Diego continues through Saturday, April 11, at Arizona State University's Lyceum Theatre, 10th Street and Myrtle Avenue in Tempe.

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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