nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
October 11, 2005
Laughter is redemption. Comedy is the reclamation that provides it. Regardless of the specific cultural context, when you can laugh at your circumstance, you can begin to believe that you’ll persevere. Latinologues, now at the Helen Hayes Theatre, brings to Broadway “Latinidad” in all its self-referential sublime raunch, or as we say, “Chusmeria!” But don’t worry, most of it is in English and the Spanish there is is obvious in context or translated. And yes, Latinos will obviously relate to the material in uniquely visceral, psychological ways, but the theatrical experience, the public testimonial of that reclamation, appeals to any and all of us that love that redemptive laughter.
While this mostly top-notch cast hammers home the nuance and variety of dialectic and cultural flavors of latinidad, the show only just begins to explore the social issues implicit in all the comedy, sacrificing some commentary for yucks, thereby diluting the lasting effect of the material.
Latinologues is everything its title implies, but more specifically, it deals with Latinos vis-à-vis the U.S. and this perspective of the “other,” where a vastly diverse cultural group is lumped into a general category for bureaucratic and social convenience. Playwright Rick Najera writes best for one character but aspires to create a cohesive unit similar to John Leguizamo's early work in Spic-O-Rama or Mambo Mouth, except that these characters are not initially connected. They each present their individual stories, and in the end through a contrivance of the writer and director, their stories intersect creating a pseudo-“familia.”
Four performers portray a dozen or so characters that include: a border-crossing Mexican and his northern nemesis, the Border Patrol guard who happens to be Mexican American; a Bronx Dominican “virgin” pregnant with the child of an “angel” who happens to be a Colombian busboy (a very macho one at that); and a very famous Cuban boy and his not-so famous, not-so savvy father who willfully returned to Cuba to rejoin the struggle promised to them by el comandante general. But how do you represent every Latino experience, every possible migratory experience, every possible social permutation? Najera tries, but not really. When he presents a laundry list of generalized stereotypes through the voice of his alter ego Buford Gomez, Border Patrol guard, one can surmise that rampant stereotyping of Latinos is as prevalent within the community as without. To summarize without giving anything away: Cubans exaggerate; Argentineans think they’re really European; and Colombians—well, it’s best not to insult the Colombians. It’s all so true, and the material hits home with Latinos who know that the differences exist, that the judgments exists. But does this transcend latinidad? Can this appeal to a broader audience? Can it do these things and illuminate the not-so-funny realities of Latinos and other immigrants that get shrouded by convenient generalizations and necessary acquiescence?
Najera sets a solid foundation for the production with director Cheech Marin providing his hard-earned comedic wisdom and perspectives to shape and pace the performance. Cheech’s resume (I can’t bring myself to call him Mr. Marin) can humble most comedians, but Najera’s talents as an actor in control of his character and material support his extensive credentials as a live performer. Likewise, the three other members of the cast execute with natural, sincere commitment, particularly Eugenio Derbez, a highly recognized comedian in his native Mexico, who brings a classical physical approach that is fearless and shameless. As the only female, Shirley A. Rumierk is underused, but provides some of the evening’s choicest heartfelt moments. Granted, one other “female” character figures prominently in the loose narrative, a matriarchal archetype easily recognized and portrayed with exuberant prudery by Derbez, but Rumierk proves that she’s got skills well beyond the young Latinas Najera has created for her. Rumierk and Derbez succeed best at going beyond the stand-up style built into the monologue form and fully personifying their characters. Rene Lavan, the leading man-type in the bunch, lets his natural simple charm ground him, but his style fits the film and TV genres he’s most worked in rather the unforgiving demands of theatre. The direction is apparent only rarely, and the confluence of talents between Cheech and his cast bolsters the intensity of the piece to comedic effect.
So, ultimately, the questions remain. The strength of Latinologues lies in the entertainment value of its performers and creative team. The challenge to any show is to provide this very entertainment while presenting a unique case for its particular context or perspective. Why must your story be told? Maybe my own perspective, my Cuban heritage, yearns to laugh but more so to laugh in spite of tears, to celebrate that reclamation and redemption as a sign of hope, for latinidad, for the stories that need to be told. Does Latinologues satisfy this? I don’t know yet, but I had some great laughs listening for it.