At first, Tanya Saracho’s Fade, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, looks deceptively like a single-issue play about ethnic inclusion. Lucia (Annie Dow) is a young writer, Mexican-born but Chicago-bred, whose debut novel has gotten her a gig on the writing team for a TV series with a Latina main character. Along with the new job comes a lot of stress: Her scriptwriting experience is minimal, and so her colleagues dismiss her as a token “diversity hire,” mostly ignoring her and constantly mispronouncing her name. (One of them refers to her as “Sofía Vergara” but won’t even make the effort to say “Vergara” right.) Her boss mainly asks her to make coffee or duplicate scripts. The one time he singles her out for attention, it’s because he needs a Spanish-speaking person to explain to his maid how he likes the morning newspapers arranged. Despite Lucia’s thirst for success, her future in Hollywood looks as grim as her standard-issue, characterless office.
But she faces the challenges bravely, especially after finding an ally in Abel (Eddie Martinez), the janitorial employee whose shift coincides with Lucia’s late-night ritual: sitting in her cubicle, seething with frustration at the nitwit dialogue her Anglo colleagues have given their Latina heroine. As allies go, Abel is a mixed bag, reluctant to be drawn into conversation while he’s working. A native Southern Californian whose memories of Mexico are nonexistent, he wears his Mexican heritage very differently from Lucia. For him, it’s a matter of shared origins and solidarity, not folkways and memories. With this differing view of ethnicity comes a different sense of economic class, as well as a different take on Mexican outsider status in a gringo nation. When Lucia complains about having gotten the job only because she’s Mexican, Abel says, “That would be a first. Mostly I know people who don’t get jobs because they are Mexican.”
As the comeback indicates, cleaning floors on the graveyard shift wasn’t Abel’s first choice of vocation. Like Lucia, he has a complicated backstory, which he lets out only in hints and flickers as the pair make common cause. While Lucia is often jarred by Abel’s more starkly negative view of the world she’s fighting her way into, his innate caution comes from viewing her as a fresa, an overprivileged, valley-girl type, a charge Lucia indignantly denies.
When Lucia and Abel’s burgeoning relationship begins to turn thornier and more tangled, some of the plot twists Saracho employs may seem contrived. Indeed, her program bio, which includes a string of credits as writer and co-producer for TV shows like How to Get Away With Murder, may tempt you to suspect that Fade is both somewhat autobiographical and somewhat redolent of those TV-writer brainstorms that give Lucia the shudders. But Saracho allows the 100-minute interaction to arise with believable spontaneity and gives both characters edges and shortcomings that take the play far beyond a simple parable about ethnicity and assimilation. In fact, quite a lot else is going on, and the work’s ultimate effect is disturbing in ways that resonate well past currently topical debates about immigration (though Saracho hasn’t missed the occasion to hastily insert a few jabs at our wall-building Trumpster and his pals).
Only rarely, too, do we catch Saracho lecturing through her characters. One key point where that happens — when Abel finally spills the bulk of his backstory — turns out to be, essentially, the opposite of a lecture on the struggles immigrants face, as well as a necessary adjunct to the plot. Much of Fade‘s usefulness, in fact, lies in Saracho’s ability to put decidedly individual human faces on a topic too often discussed abstractly. She lays out the issues clearly, but does it while underscoring the important fact that immigrants are a host of incredibly different human beings, not a band of identically incomprehensible strangers. As the play snakes its complex way from the political to the personal and back, it reaches out to larger themes — including one about art and its prerogatives — that resonate in a much wider world.
One reason Saracho’s theme-juggling comes off so well is that director Jerry Ruiz handles it adroitly. He neither pushes the emotions nor forces the pace, keeping the story grounded in realism without letting it get bogged down. Dow’s performance helps too, in a role that is far more flamboyant than its counterpart, and has probably twice as many words. Whether playing crestfallen or exhilarated, frenetic with anxiety or exploding in fury, Dow manages at each moment to take the feeling precisely up to its edge — and stop there. She gets good, solid support from Martinez, though he wears some of Abel’s hidden sorrows a little too lightly. It’s not an issue of showing the pain: One of the really hard tasks in acting is to make audiences believe in the pain you’re not showing them. And Saracho’s script has given him plenty of opportunities — another reason that Fade, for all its limitations, is a play genuinely worth paying attention to.
By Tanya Saracho
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Through March 5