Theater archives

Tales From the Lower East Side


“There’s a French bistro on Avenue B,” says Richard Montoya in the guise of Nuyorican elder statesman Miguel Algarín. “Fucking French bistro! The food is out of this world.” In Culture Clash’s Nuyorican Stories: Culture Clash in the City, the 15-year-old Latino comedy troupe continues its foray into Anna Deavere Smith–style reportorial theater, delving into the soul of a city and its culture. This time around they’re taking on the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican contingent, and while there are glimpses of ironic insight— like Algarín’s culinary criticism— the piece offers little of the careful social analysis Culture Clash is known for.

That’s not to say that this fiercely frenetic piece doesn’t show off the guys’ incredible performance chops. Each actor (Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, and Ric Salinas) plays a myriad of characters and their talents as physical comedians may be unparalleled. However, unlike the group’s previous, more edgy material, Nuyorican Stories is both a love letter (mostly to Montoya’s father, the poet José Montoya) and a eulogy (mostly for Nuyorican playwright Miguel Piñero). In their celebration of the community, the troupe focuses on the past: there’s a long archival film segment on the Puerto Rican nationalists who wounded five members of Congress as they fired from a spectators’ gallery in 1954, and more than half the piece deals with the year 1974 (“Before AIDS, before condoms, before Dominicans,” as one character puts it), a date touted as a turning point for both Nuyorican art— it marked the premiere of Piñero’s landmark drama Short Eyes— and the Puerto Rican independence movement.

As a result, there’s a curiously sincere (for these guys, anyway) and almost melancholic tone to the production, which suggests, inadvertently, I suspect, that the most significant moments for Puerto Rican culture have passed. That’s a pretty bizarre proposition, especially considering recent events involving the FALN, a senator-maybe-to-be, and her husband (there is one reference to the recent prisoner release, but it’s a relatively fleeting one). Also, because
Nuyorican Stories focuses on a single group, it leaves Siguenza, Montoya, and Salinas stranded both as cultural critics and performers.
There are some dead-on portrayals— Montoya in particular creates some very complex characterizations, especially his portrayal of Algarín and a single mother who frets about her 16-year-old son’s future— and nobody can beat Salinas’s graceful physicality, but the group is unable, or unwilling, to dig deeply into the underside of the Puerto Rican culture.

With this myopic approach, Culture Clash can’t live up to their name in quite the same way they did with their dizzyingly wonderful and nasty 1996 piece, Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami. In that show, Cubans, Haitians, African Americans, Jews, and air-headed whites were simultaneously skewered and thrown together to create a multiculti stew that presented a vivid portrait of a city in upheaval. Nuyorican Stories, the result of a year-long residency at INTAR, was originally supposed to be called Radio Manhattan, and it’s hard not to wish that the troupe had been up for taking a far more sweeping view of the city during their stay. Because, for all its talk about mofungo and other savory Puerto Rican dishes, Nuyorican Stories‘s flavor is curiously flat.

But at least there’s a little spice, unlike the Pearl Theatre’s utterly bland production of Carlo Goldoni’s 1751 play Mirandolina (La locandiera). While it’s true that Goldoni’s modus operandi was to try and enliven the then moribund commedia dell’arte form with three-dimensional characters, if the playwright saw the kind of Beth Henley–ish naturalistic acting that Robin Leslie Brown indulges in the title role, it would make him want to put his Venetian head through a wall. It’s not totally Brown’s fault— most of the blame lies with director Lou Jacob, who seems more interested in throwing in the occasional Robert Wilson–esque slo-mo movement or goofy Esquivel-style incidental music than helping his actors find a consistent tone for their performances.

The only saving grace is Bernard K. Addison as the woman-hating Colonel Ripafratta. As he slowly finds himself falling for Brown’s conniving landlady, Addison stalks the stage, tosses furniture around, and venomously spits orders at his put-upon valet (Matthew Gray), managing to truly embody the playwright’s description (via Michael Feingold’s new translation) of this character as a “cartoon.” But it’s too little too late. By the third act, when Pearl company member John Wylie begins performing a horridly unfunny lazzi involving cleaning a spot on his ass— don’t ask— the intrepid viewer is left wondering why New York City seems unable to have a single good company that specializes in the classics. But I suppose there’s one silver lining: the subscriber beside me had herself an awfully good two-and-a-half-hour nap.