There’s a giant pile of paper onstage in Catherine Filloux’s new play, Luz (directed by José Zayas at La Mama). The stack is monstrous and messy: sheaves of documents spill out of ragged file folders, and cardboard boxes strain at their seams. It’s a striking visual metaphor for the play’s subject—the dense legal battles and complex interconnections created by American crimes abroad, from the support of brutal dictatorships to the ravaging of natural landscapes. It’s easy to imagine being caught in the giant bureaucracy that the paper monument implies—and that’s a terrifying thought.
Unfortunately, the rest of Filloux’s play is far less compelling than this opening image. Initial scenes introduce us to victims fleeing nations in crisis, among them the titular Luz (Julissa Roman), who escaped harrowing abuse at the hands of the U.S.-trained Guatemalan military. Linking these distressing tales is Alexandra (Kimber Riddle), a wearily noble lawyer pursuing their quests for asylum pro bono. In a second storyline, a slick, gum-chomping oil company exec tries to evade the attentions of a superstar environmental activist—and the ethical inquiries of his own son.
Filloux’s point couldn’t be clearer: To quench Americans’ thirst for oil, corporations wreak environmental havoc, propping themselves up with the aid of horrifying paramilitaries. But demonstrating these truths is different from making them interesting onstage. The asylum-seekers’ narratives are stilted and cliché-laden—think dimly lit dream sequences, with loud sounds of flapping bird wings. Watching a refugee die painfully onstage, as a dismayed doctor tweets the details (incongruously intoning “Tweet” every few words), does not expand the play’s artistic or intellectual scope. Neither does learning that Alexandra’s professional passion is fueled by her own (rather maudlin) traumatic past.
At one point, the slimy corporate type announces that he’s found the perfect deterrent to keep birds away from oil-soaked danger zones: a giant mechanical vulture, which screams and flaps its wings in warning. But the real birds, it turns out, are too exhausted from endless migrations, so they ignore their robotic comrade and alight in toxic swamps anyway. Sadly, Luz is the dramatic equivalent of this warning system: lots of anguished wing-flapping, to very little effect.