Man on the Verge

"There aren't many Mexican cowboys here tonight," says playwright Guillermo Reyes, with a hint of sardonic disappointment in his voice.

A glance around the room affirms his observation. One lone cowboy sits at the bar, complete with 10-gallon hat and dusty boots. The rest of the cramped, humid dance floor is packed with a variety of bodies, all pulsating to Latin techno music.

If your mind isn't open before you come to Paco Paco, the Valley's "premiere" gay Latin dance club, no problem. The inhabitants will pry it open for you.

Two young paradigms of Latino masculinity freak to the beat of a Jennifer Lopez dance mix. Gold chains cling to sweaty necks as they hike their boxers above their baggy jeans. Their bare, tattooed chests and pierced nipples writhe against each other.

It's a mixture of ages and styles, though mostly Latino, and almost entirely male. There are only four women in here, and three of them aren't women.

The watchword of the evening is ambiguity. It has come out of Reyes' mouth a dozen times tonight, and it comes out loud and proud in his plays.

Touted in this month's American Theatre Magazine as one of the "world's finest stage writers," Arizona State University's playwright-in-residence makes art out of poking fun at the concept that identity can be boxed up and pigeonholed. This 38-year-old writer, who has called the Valley home for the past four years, has written more than 20 scripts. Most of them deal with themes of sexuality, gender and Latino identity. His plays have been produced in Los Angeles and New York, and like any artist trafficking in contentious ideas, his work has been both praised and criticized.

Whether it deals with sexual, ethnic or cultural identity, Reyes' theater illuminates that which defies categorization, leaving most of his characters on the border.

If you are going to see a Guillermo Reyes play, prepare to have your stereotypes shattered -- and not just one at a time.

A Mexican cowboy in a gay bar -- it's the kind of juxtaposition Reyes can sink his teeth into.

Or this: A married Mexican-American U.S. Border Patrol officer who is in the closet and doesn't speak Spanish falls in love with an undocumented Mexican man. Such is the conceit of Reyes' play Deporting the Divas. That play also features an undocumented Guatemalan drag queen, a favorite to win Miss California, who looks too much like a white woman to get deported.

Then there's the white supremacist with a gay son in Strangers in Paradise, and the Marine about to be shipped off to the Persian Gulf who falls for a mysterious Latino in The West Hollywood Affair. Or how about the Latino in Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown who bleaches his skin, changes his name, goes to Hollywood and can't get cast in a Latino role because he's too white?

All of Reyes' characters tend to be excessive caricatures, and all straddle fences and cross borders. All of them live between worlds. All are hiding something. And, for the most part, all of them are anchored in reality, but burst from Reyes' pen as outrageously comedic.

"Humor can offend, but it does so in a way that makes you laugh, and that disarms the audience," Reyes says. "After they get home, they [patrons] probably wonder, 'Wait a second, that was a serious situation.'"

Joseph Megel, artistic director of Playwright's Theatre of New Jersey, has worked with Reyes for more than eight years. He directed Men on the Verge in Los Angeles and New York, and has watched Reyes come into his own as a playwright. Recently, he directed a version of Reyes' Deporting the Divas for the NYC Queer @ Here theater festival.

"It [Divas] really does something that very few pieces like it do, which is address this issue of what it feels like when you are in a culture where belonging is everything, and you don't," Megel says. "Gay versus straight, Latino versus Anglo, immigrant versus citizen, illegal versus legal immigrant, Chicano versus Mexican. When you look at all the different categorizations, and you don't glom onto one as an identity, you find yourself nowhere."

Reyes says that in his case, looking for the person behind the writer is a waste of time. If you want to know who Guillermo Reyes is, read his plays.

Men on the Verge got him noticed, with its series of comedic monologues about several Hispanic experiences, woven together by Federico, "The Gay Little Immigrant That Could." He's a cheerful young Latino who shows up from an unspecified Latin American country on the day of the Los Angeles riots. Other characters include an aging boy toy, a gay Cuban exile who is president of the gay Arizona Republicans, and an ESL teacher [English as a Stressful Language] who insults his Latino students.

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Amanda Scioscia
Contact: Amanda Scioscia