BORDERLANDS' LATEST PRODUCTION is the perfect evening date for a gay Latino couple. But if you don't fall into that somewhat narrow demographic, not to worry. Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown is a giddy, tender, satirical and wry delight. The plights of the play's eight very quirky gay Hispanic characters are plenty human and hilarious without requiring an overt identification with their particulars.
Actor Andrés Alcalá takes on the daunting task of all eight roles under the direction of the play's author, Guillermo Reyes. Alcalá proves more than equal to the challenge, endowing Reyes' characters with grace, wit and dignity -- and most importantly in a one-man play, differentiation and diversity. He's aptly assisted by strong technical support: John Dahlstrand's varied lighting provides a needed foil for the solo actor, functioning as a door slamming shut in an immigrant's face, and implied characters created through silhouettes and simulations (such as a packed, sweaty "ghost" disco). The stage, designed by Warren Loomis, opens with the miscellaneous props -- the various costume changes, chairs, table tops -- all hanging on its frame walls. As the play progresses, these props are pulled down, used and discarded, so that the stage becomes increasingly bare.
Reyes defines his "His-panic breakdown" as the life-altering trans-cultural shock resulting from the double whammy of international emigration and the simultaneous search for one's sexual identity. Each of his characters is caught in the middle of a situation in which he must struggle to handle his overload of cultural baggage. Characters range from an aging Cuban restaurant owner in Phoenix (expelled from a Castro concentration camp for homosexuals to wash ashore in America during the Mariel Boatlift), to a psychopathic English as a Second Language instructor trying to obscure his foreign origins to an ecstatically queer 18-year-old student in New York. The latter sketch, a monologue entitled "First Love," has been added by the author/director to the published version of the play. Borderlands previously produced Reyes' Deporting the Divas.
Men on the Verge was first performed in Los Angeles in 1994 and won L.A. Ovation awards for Best Production and Best World Premiere. It's also gone on to San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and New York, where it was staged off-Broadway in 1997. This production is a reprise of the Miracle Theatre's presentation last month in Portland, Oregon, which also featured Oregon resident Alcalá. So the actor has all his lines and moves down perfectly, and the production sails along smoothly.
The show opens with the only recurring character, Federico, whose immigrant search for the American Dream and an "openly gay lifestyle" are documented in letters to his mother. Arriving in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, which he assumes to be the filming of a Lethal Weapon sequel, he remains undaunted even when doors literally close in his face. Later in the play, he returns with his new lover, a deaf Streisand impersonator. On their first night together the earth moves, literally, thanks to the Northridge earthquake. In the epilogue, we learn that Federico and Joey marry a couple of lesbians and the "gay little immigrant who could" finds happiness and family in a ménage à quatre.
Alcalá's most uproarious portrayals are of the glamorous, up-and-coming actor Edward Thornhill III, née Eduardo Troncos; and a nameless, asexual roommate trying desperately to find a new boarder after (accidentally) murdering his last roomie.
In "Hispanically Correct," Eddie makes a desperate phone call to the Hispanic Hotline to get advice on the politically correct options for a totally convoluted situation: Eddie's passed as a white guy for so long that when he's cast as Hispanic, the director wants him to change his name to calm the furor of an Anglo getting the lead role in a movie set in Mexico. At the same time, his Greek goddess girlfriend, Cynthia Clintgore, a Latino passing as a WASP from Nebraska, wants to conceive a child (there's a hilarious moment of physical comedy involving confused sexual roles and positions), just as Eduardo's parents walk in. In the end, he's barricaded in his living room to avoid all the various conflicts of "Mexican versus Anglo, English versus Spanish, women versus men, gay versus straight, Armani versus Polo," while a mob tries to break down his door. Not bad for a one-man show.
In "Demon Roommate from Hell," Alcalá plays the nerdy son of a Chilean torturer in exile who bitterly complains about how much less fun it is to run a dental clinic. The geek, trying to entice a prospective tenant to his domicile adjacent the Burbank airport, tells the circuitous tale of the accidental death-by-mineral-water of the last roommate, a screenwriter. "I wasn't charged with anything," he shrugs. "Another screenwriter is dead in Burbank and nobody asks the hard questions."
The exceptionally expressive Alcalá, with his rubber-face antics and wide, Pee Wee Herman-like eyes, has the moves and energy to carry this demanding show. Reyes' taut and funny script is well-served here. The author, himself a Chilean emigrant, is the director of the play-writing program at Arizona State University.
Catch Men on the Verge during its all-too-brief run. Strong adult themes strike a balance with Alcalá's winning performance and superb timing. With an emphasis on pure comedy over politically correct agitprop, Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown is a one-man riot.
Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown, a Borderlands Theater production directed by Guillermo Reyes, continues through July 18 at the PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $9 to $12; student tickets are $8. For information and reservations, call the PCC box office at 882-7406.