Shifting Individuals

'Earthquake Chica' won't move mountains, but it's an enjoyable show

Los Angeles is one big seismic hazard, and nowhere more so than in the vicinity of Esmeralda Portillo and Sam Reyes. They work for a big law firm--she's a physically extroverted secretary, and he's an introverted intellectual accountant. They're about as different as can be, and they grind against each other like two tectonic plates, each heading in the wrong direction. Esmeralda has a tendency to shake things up, anyway; her father used to call her "Earthquake Chica."

That's also the title of the Anne Garcia-Romero play being produced by Borderlands Theater, a company that often explores the fault lines between cultures. This time, though, the unstable plate boundaries are between two individuals shifting within their shared Mexican-American culture.

Sam is the more stable of the two. He's an awkward, nerdy adult still living with his parents, but he has a responsible job and a love of the Spanish language; in his off hours, he immerses himself in the work of Spanish and Latin American poets, when he's not doing math problems for fun. Esmeralda, in contrast, isn't at all comfortable with her heritage. Her Mexican father wielded Spanish abusively at home, so she has no taste for (or even competence in) the language. Her mother was an intellectual, but there, too, Esmeralda falls short; she slips from one dead-end, low-skill job to another, because she's far more interested in living than working.

Incompatible as they seem, Sam and Esmeralda negotiate their way into an uneasy marriage of minds. Sam tutors Esmeralda in Spanish, while Esmeralda tries to liberate Sam physically, on the dance floor and occasionally in bed. Both efforts seem doomed. As Sam observes, Esmeralda's passion suggests that the fabric of the Spanish language is in her very being. But it's a struggle for Sam and Esmeralda to tutor each other in what they each know best; instead of improving each other, they seem to be fostering a mutual instability.

Garcia-Romero's Earthquake Chica doesn't break any new ground conceptually; you'll find woefully mismatched lovers trying to teach each other life lessons in the screwball Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, and you can easily trace the basic idea to Shakespeare, if not beyond. But Garcia-Romero's witty, fast-paced play does give the situation a new twist, focusing on two very individual and well-drawn characters in a particular cultural stratum that American theater hasn't handled often or well.

True, the writing in the meet-cute first scene is a bit self-conscious, and Alida Gunn, as directed by Eva Zorrilla Tessler, gives us a more overbearing Esmeralda than is really necessary. After that, though, the writing, acting and directing settle into a lively, natural rhythm. The brief scenes last just as long as they need to, and almost every one repositions one character or the other toward an interesting direction.

After the first scene, Gunn knows exactly how to modulate Esmeralda's brashness. But that's the comparatively easy part of the role; she's also keyed in to Esmeralda's more subtle elements of insecurity and vulnerability, and delivers a much better-rounded character than you'd expect from the beginning.

Similarly, Joe Quintero makes much more of Sam than just the stock nerd character you'd find elsewhere. Sure, he's uptight and stiff, but there's nothing at all dorky about his ordered intellect and poetic soul. Quintero's Sam should be banned from the dance floor, but otherwise, he's a nuanced, caring, interesting guy, and it's easy to see why Esmeralda might be drawn to him.

Director Zorrilla Tessler keeps it moving smartly, finding a nice balance between histrionics and quieter humor, and making sure the actors believe in their characters (and that the characters believe in themselves). The characters are what count most in this production; the action plays out on a mostly bare stage, with little more than a railing and a few reconfigurable black boxes deployed to good effect by scenic and lighting designer Russell Stagg.

Ultimately, Earthquake Chica turns out not to be a major temblor, but it produces enough lively little tremors to remind us that life and love never play out on truly stable ground.