As Mando Alvarado’s The Basilica (from the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater) grinds on past one tragic, hard-to-accept plot development, and Joe (Felix Solis), a crumpled beer can of a dad, bellows drunkenly at God, audiences, too, may feel like beseeching Joe’s creator. “Why is this happening?” and, “After all that attentive drama, you’re just going to strike the world you’ve crafted with random, meaningless tragedy?”
Modestly staged and often well acted, the play is one of those foursquare naturalistic looks at flyover life, in this case a Texas Latino community and a family divided between three overlapping spheres: home, church, and the bar. Hotheaded patriarch Joe is trying not to drink too much, trying to get back into the good life, trying to please his God-minded wife, played with warm stolidity by Selenis Leyva. But years of stanching his own dreams has left him hostile to his children’s pursuit of theirs. His son (played by Jake Cannavale) is eager to go to college out of state rather than down the road, which prompts Joe into the belligerent “You think you’re better than me?” routine, with all the nuance you would expect if Pebbles one day told Fred she was skipping Bedrock U. for Princestone.
Those threads of Alvarado’s story are old baling twine, still capable of holding a show together but not much more than that. Others are of finer stuff. The mother’s efforts to connect herself and her family more fully to the church grow tangled, promisingly with the arrival of a new priest with whom she and her son share much mysterious backstory—though not the usual priest/young man backstory, thankfully. And a tween daughter’s (Yadira Guevara-Prip) own quest for spiritual meaning involves amusing dress-up and likable comic misunderstandings—until it, like everything with Dad, turns so abruptly dark I wondered if a scene had been skipped. The priest story, too, lurches to a grim, oddly vituperative conclusion, an exposing-everyone’s-hypocrisy scene as hard to believe today as it was when “Harper Valley PTA” hit 45 years ago.
Joe dominates the play, but he’s given too few modes to work in: stricken rage, trying-hard father, bellicose drunk. He’s powerful in his individual moments, but those moments, as written, don’t connect into a coherent whole of a person. Although some scenes feel true, especially those involving Joe’s blowups with Leyva and the tender-eyed (and arresting) Cannavale, when tragedy strikes after intermission, the play gets stuck firmly in the mode of theatrical chest-beating rather than that of human feeling.