Maybe there’s a misguided TV network executive giving New York theater producers lessons in counterprogramming. Why else would the Culture Project have pit its own British-import Iraq war docudrama (Guardians) up against the Public Theater’s (Stuff Happens) just a few months ago? Now they counter the Public’s new José Rivera play School of the Americas with a revival of Rivera’s earlier, better Cloud Tectonics. Whatever their strategy, they seem to be stuck working at cross-purposes—dividing audiences instead of serving them. This production seems to be at cross-purposes too, often taking the wind out of Rivera’s flights of poetic fancy.
During the “storm of the century,” Aníbal de la Luna, a lonely LAX baggage handler, picks up the mysterious hitchhiker Celestina del Sol, a childlike innocent who claims to be 54 years old and two years pregnant. Around her, clocks stop, dreams and memories float to the surface, and men can’t help falling in love. Freighting his characters with symbolic names and emblematic backstories, Rivera strains to recall not only the magic realism of the Latin American fiction boom, but also the 15th-century Spanish tragicomedy La Celestina, with which it shares the manipulative protagonist’s name and supernatural lust, and whose characters are similarly brought together and separated by unexplained time warps. But strip away Rivera’s poetic flair and you’re left with the thin plot contrivances of a lost Twilight Zone episode.
Time slows down around Celestina, which may explain why director James Phillip Gates often lets his pacing lag. The vividly talented Luis Vega, as Aníbal, and Julio Rivera, as his long-lost jarhead brother, help ground the play in believable realism, but Frederique Nahmani, miscast as Celestina, fails to locate her character’s heart—or her accent.