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.

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