nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 17, 2006
Desi Moreno-Penson's Devil Land may be the scariest new play of the season. It's a modern-day gothic horror story; a thriller whose psychological elements are well-enough fleshed out to be both credible and authentically disturbing. It's a unique evening of theatre.
Based on real events, Devil Land is about a married couple living in the Bronx, Beatriz and Americo, and the little girl they have kidnapped. Americo works as the super in the apartment building where they live; Beatriz, who is fanatically religious, yearns for a child (having lost her own some years before). She's convinced herself, in fact, that a 10-year-old girl who lives in their building—the appropriately named Destiny—is precisely what's needed to bring her fulfillment and to turn her wavering marriage with Americo into a healthy family unit.
And so, as the play begins, Beatriz and Americo have stolen Destiny away from her mother and locked her in the boiler room in the basement, her leg chained to the floor so she can't escape, and all the windows covered so she won't be seen. I should note right away that the atmosphere that Moreno-Penson and her director, Jose Zayas, conjure in Devil Land is so intriguingly surreal that this truly terrible central concept—assaulting an innocent child and chaining her up—feels creepy but not upsetting; somehow it's organic in this place, which is precisely the playwright's point.
Devil Land proceeds in straightforward if sometimes supernatural fashion, delineating the extent and probable causes of Beatriz's affliction along with Destiny's imaginary (?) friend, the Grinch (yes, the one from Dr. Seuss; his book is Destiny's favorite), who she says lives inside the boiler and who may or may not be responsible for some nasty occurences as the tale progresses. Americo's deep-seated aggressive self makes some appearances as well, as his natural curiosity and concern for his new "daughter" morphs into something less wholesome and more overtly sexual.
Moreno-Penson probes the dark sides of her characters with skill and frankness, yet manages to continually keep the play rooted in a fantastical world inside their heads that makes it impossible for us to know what's real and what's imagined/desired. Does Americo really act on his abusive impulses, as he claims? Does Destiny's Grinch really rattle around inside the boiler? We can never be absolutely certain, which is why Devil Land is so successfully spooky.
At the same time, the playwright explores with real incisiveness the root of some of this would-be evil, especially the demons that live inside Beatriz. This woman wrestles with two severely dysfunctional notions that have been pummeled into her since childhood—the biblical sinfulness of Man and the supposed inferiority of Puerto Ricans. (All three of the characters in the play are Americans of Puerto Rican descent.) These deeply ingrained prejudices keep Beatriz from ever coming close to self-actualization; it's brave and smart of Moreno-Penson to confront these seldom-talked-about issues so squarely.
In fact, if Devil Land has a weakness, it's that the playwright has included so much within it. Destiny is proudly knowledgable of her ancestors, the indigenous Taino people of pre-Columbian Puerto Rico, and she talks at length to Beatriz and Americo about their beliefs and customs. It's fascinating stuff, but it never quite melds into the story (and I didn't understand how it jives with Destiny's other significant belief, in the realness of her friend the Grinch). Moreno-Penson also provides information that suggests that Beatriz may be bipolar, which undermines some of her theses about Beatriz's psychological problems. And there's an unseen voice, delivering voiceover narration in Dr. Seuss-inflected verse, that's appealingly omniscient and otherworldly but nevertheless sometimes jars with the style of the rest of the play.
All that said however, Devil Land is a dazzlingly imaginative and ambitious work, and it's been given a splendid production by Immediate Theater Company. Director Zayas has staged the piece tautly, building suspense masterfully as it moves along. All three actors do exceptional work, with Miguel Sierra marvelous as the conflicted Americo, trying to balance the good and evil impulses of his nature; Paula Ehrenberg convincingly childlike as Destiny and at the same time a little bit spooky; and playwright Moreno-Penson herself outstanding as the very troubled Beatriz. The production design is excellent as well, featuring a suitably dank yet familiar set design by Ryan Elliott Kravetz and appropriate lighting and sound by Jorge Arroyo and David Lawson.