The discomfort of watching Christina Masciotti’s Raw Bacon From Poland doesn’t lie in the painful story she wishes to tell. Unfortunately, it comes from the writer’s own failure to tell that story with the complexity, nuance, and imagination it deserves. Directed by Ben Williams, and performed by a solid cast led by Joel Perez, Raw Bacon From Poland is a surface-grazing take on the classic American tale of a man who comes back from the war to find himself fighting yet another losing battle at home. Although the production has many virtues, it ultimately falls prey to clichés it would have done better to push against.
The story revolves around Dennis Toledo (played by Perez with a brimming intensity), a Puerto Rican veteran of the Iraq war. At the top, he’s in a Brooklyn Treatment Court, charged for domestic violence for hitting his wife. He’s also a pillhead with PTSD, anger management issues, and flashbacks to a horrifying event he experienced while a Marine. He’s struggling to keep his new job in a high-end shoe store, while aspiring to be a personal trainer. His version of the American Dream: “buy one of those suburban muckmansions. Off a big highway with mall strips. Five bedrooms, four bathrooms. Golfing. Get my daughter back.” The play follows Dennis through a grueling, humbling path to redemption, which includes drug tests, rehab, and meetings with his social worker (Kate Benson), veteran mentor (Douglas Scott Streater), and therapist (Jay Smith). Though Dennis works in earnest to expel his traumas and improve his lot, Masciotti has stacked the deck against him in such a way that the piece telegraphs, from the outset, that things won’t go his way.
Masciotti has been praised before for having an unerring gift for speech — for channeling the rhythms and poetry of “real talk” — but with Dennis’s dialogue, she indulges in comedic malapropisms that have the unintended effect of belittling his character, turning her tragic figure into something closer to a court jester. During a frantic conversation with his social worker about his daughter’s blond-haired, blue-eyed foster parents’ wish to adopt her, he delivers lines like “They take my baby, that’s kidnapping. I’ll be setting off amber alarms” and “This is beyond the borderline of what’s right, Miss Alice.” This kind of writing offends because it purports to capture something “real” about speech and how it is shaped by race and class, but doesn’t self-reflect on the fact that any expression of “the real” is shaped by race and class, too. (It must be noted that no other characters here are similarly undermined by the words put into their mouths.) If the play is intended to skewer the systems that have pushed Dennis into his present hellhole of trauma and dependence, then it could have done so first and foremost by undermining the stereotypes that propel these well-worn narratives. Without that kind of puncturing, the story devolves into a well-intended (perhaps), whitewashed, neoliberal spectacle that revels in the suffering of “others.”
The final beat is gutting, yet telling too: Dennis is abandoned, having followed orders once again, this time to do “the right thing” for his daughter. We pity him because we understand he’s been betrayed by yet another system that needs him to believe that it is he who has betrayed himself — an unwitting metaphor for the ways in which the playwright and the play have betrayed him as well.
Raw Bacon From Poland
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through June 17