‘Alexandros’ is

fitfully successful

in Laguna Playhouse premiere

A new comedy about a dysfunctional Cuban-American family struggles with problems of tone but presents some memorable characters.

By PAUL HODGINS, The Orange County Register

Abuela appraises her 15-year-old her granddaughter Marty for the first time in a decade. “Enorme!” she says, marveling over how much the girl has grown.

“She says you’re very beautiful,” Marty’s mom, Maritza, quickly adds.

That moment near the beginning of “Alexandros,” a new play by Melinda Lopez making its world premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, nicely captures its themes. This dysfunctional Cuban-American family walks gingerly on a bed of lies, and Maritza’s decision to leave her Miami clan and raise her girl in Texas has created a gulf between Abeula and Marty that a simple reunion won’t solve. Their language barrier (Marty doesn’t speak Spanish, and Abuela’s English is limited) is only the beginning of the problem.

Lopez presents some thorny issues in this script, which was commissioned by the playhouse after positive response to its West Coast premiere of her play “Sonia Flew” last season. But the tone of intermittent farce punctuated by serious interludes isn’t always a comfortable fit for the material. And Lopez’ attempts to make this family’s situation resonate with the bigger picture (it’s the summer of 1974, and President Nixon is about to pay the ultimate price for his lies) isn’t convincing.

“Sonia Flew,” about the relocation of Cuban children in adoptive American homes after Castro’s ascendancy, weaved together elements of Magic Realism and straight-ahead drama, and Lopez worked with assurance in that language. Lopez isn’t as familiar with the mechanics of domestic dramedy, and at times “Alexandros” devolves into sitcom shallowness.

But at its best, the play achieves what I think Lopez set out to do: illuminate both the tragedy and comic absurdity of a family that copes with past traumas and present difficulties through denial and dissembling.

Maritza (Saundra Santiago) has been persuaded by her brother Tio (Chaz Mena) to travel from her Texas home to see her mother Abuela (Maria Cellario) in Miami. It’s Abuela’s 75th birthday, but she’s in no mood to celebrate. “Welcome to my funeral,” she announces to her shocked well-wishers.

The opening scene sets the tone. It begins in the dark, and chaos reigns. Alexandros, Abuela’s ancient lap dog, bites Maritza when she tries to greet him. After the lights go up, the frenzy of hugs and kisses excludes Marty (Katharine Luckinbill), who stands near the door, suitcase in hand, looking like a stranger who’s wandered into the wrong home. As Marty’s sullen attitude and peace-symbol earrings hint, Maritza will soon be in for a couple years of full-blown teen ‘tude and open rebellion.

To all appearances, they’re a loving and successful family. Abuela lives in a ’70s-stylish Miami home. Tio is a busy entertainer on cruise ships. Maritza, whose first husband died, is married to a wealthy Texas doctor, dresses like a well-kept woman and drives a Mercedes. Marty is thriving in an expensive music school, where she studies classical piano.

But all is not what it seems. Why didn’t Martiza’s husband tag along for the visit? Why did she drive all the way from Texas to Florida? Why does the gardener, an affable guy named Eric (Kevin Symons), insist on dropping in for the birthday celebrations? And why does Tio put on a cheesy Greek accent when he talks to Eric?

These questions and many others are answered in the course of this two-hour show. Along the way are moments of clever comedy, along with stretches of shtick that seem forced. In the second act, when things get more serious and the light of truth is finally shined on everyone, “Alexandros” gains gravitas and, not surprisingly, pulls us in.

Some actors seem more at ease with Lopez’ hybrid tone than others.

Mena is well suited to this kind of script. He’s an energetic performer who knows how to get a laugh out of manic pratfalls, but his serious scenes are persuasive, too. Santiago has her poignant moments, but seems less adept than Mena at switching from pathos to humor. Cellario plays an archetype – the loving matriarch whose warmth hides a backbone of steel – but brings humanity to the role.

As troubled Marty, Luckinbill’s bag of tricks seems limited at first. There’s more to seething teen angst than slumped shoulders and bad posture. But Marty is given more pivotal scenes in the second act, and Luckinbill rises to her character’s demands when it counts.

Symons plays the story’s least plausible character (for reasons that I can’t reveal without spoiling the plot), but the actor’s powers of charm somehow power through his character’s obvious weaknesses.

David Ellenstein directs with a good feel for the dictates of physical comedy, although Marty Burnett’s broad, smooth-flowing set presents problems with certain crucial bathroom scenes that even the most capable director couldn’t solve. Julie Keen’s costumes capture the glorious, colorful train wreck that was fashion in the ’70s.

Though “Alexandros” is flawed, it shows promise. Lopez should keep writing in this vein – perhaps even about this clan. There’s enough baggage here for five more plays, and I want to see the fireworks that result as new realities are dealt with and everyone endures a family’s worst nightmare: a disgruntled and self-righteous teen.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins@ocregister.com

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In Melinda Lopez’s comedy ‘Alexandros,’ a gathering of a Cuban American clan doesn’t go as planned.

By David Ng, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

June 2, 2008

If for no other reason, family reunions exist to give writers ample material for their stories of dinner-table dysfunctionality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Other people’s domestic traumas have yielded some of theater’s finest masterpieces.
Unfortunately, Melinda Lopez’s “Alexandros” isn’t one of them. This ensemble piece, having its world premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, is a family-reunion comedy that uses ethnic spice to enliven its reheated premise. A Cuban family living in Miami reunites to celebrate the 75th birthday of its matriarch (Maria Cellario). The party brings three generations together under one tempestuous (and pink-tiled) roof.

This occasionally funny play adheres to the family-reunion axiom that buried secrets must be revealed at the most awkward possible moments. The eldest daughter, Maritza (Saundra Santiago), is a vivacious society lady who doesn’t want her family to know about her impending divorce from her wealthy husband. Her brother, Tio (Chaz Mena), is a cruise ship performer who prefers to keep his relationship with the family gardener (Kevin Symons) buried deep in the closet.

Emotional catharsis arrives courtesy of two unlikely interlopers. The old lady’s lap dog, Alexandros (played by a stuffed animal), experiences a mysterious fate that throws the entire household into chaos. Meanwhile, the granddaughter, Marty, accidentally discovers her uncle’s clandestine liaison and must do everything to keep herself from spilling the secret. She’s played by Katharine Luckinbill, who is best known as the granddaughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Perhaps appropriately, much of “Alexandros” plays like a 1950s sitcom. The characters are often pulling their faces into exaggerated expressions and constantly running around the set like a bunch of lunatics. The dialogue seems timed to match an imaginary laugh track. And the obligatory family-values lessons of the third act are dutifully reinforced.

The actual setting of the play is August 1974, on the eve of President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The historical backdrop provides some convenient story parallels — the toppling of authority, the outing of secrets and the beginning of a new era. It’s a rather grandiose metaphor for such a modest play, but it does have the benefit of allowing the production team to indulge in garish ’70s fashion, including bell-bottoms, big-collared shirts and fluorescent hot pants.

“Alexandros” contains some marvelously off-kilter scenes, most of them involving the flamboyant Tio. In one moment of stress, he performs an outrageously hammy rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” on the family piano. Later, after much has been revealed, he childishly buries his face in a pillow for what seems like an eternity. Mena’s wild but controlled performance turns a cliched role into something verging on experimental art.

The female cast members aren’t nearly as successful with their parts, though that’s mostly the fault of the playwright, who has created a gallery of stock Latinas. The grandmother is an overbearing matron obsessed with fortune telling, while her daughter is a hot-tempered firecracker who is always breaking out into cha-cha-cha dance moves. But worst of all is the granddaughter, a fully Americanized teenager who is predictably hostile to her ethnic relatives but then comes to embrace the value of her cultural heritage.

Directed by David Ellenstein, “Alexandros” is pitched as a screwball comedy, but the production’s aim is slightly askew. The play teeters indecisively between outright frivolity and moments of psychological gravitas. “He was a lot of sad with his happy,” says one character, and that line sums up the play’s rather unbalanced tone of tragicomedy.

Lopez, whose “Sonia Flew” premiered last season at Laguna, knows how to juggle characters and write fast-paced scenes. But no amount of cleverness, or Latin exoticism for that matter, can conceal that she’s essentially serving up leftovers.

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