Justo en lo Mejor de Mi Vida (“Just at Life’s Best Moment”)
By Alicia Muñoz
Directed by Mario Marcel
Produced by Teatro de la Luna
At Gunston Theater II to Nov. 12
If We Are Women
By Joanna McClelland Glass
Directed by Steven Carpenter
Produced by the Washington Stage Guild
At Arena Stage at 14th & T to Nov. 27
In the heart of D.C. and out in the Arlington suburbs, at a company that performs chiefly for a -Spanish-speaking audience and one with a Shaw specialty, a Canadian-born playwright and an Argentine dramatist are both wrestling with a question that would seem to be something of a universal: Why, in a self-actualized world, do so many of us spend so long regretting so much?
Alicia Muñoz, perhaps channeling Chekhov, laughs a little ruefully at the question in Justo en lo Mejor de Mi Vida (“Just at Life’s Best Moment”), which gets a sturdy if not quite sterling staging from Teatro de la Luna. Wrapping a genuine bleakness in the bright tinsel of wires-crossed comedy, Muñoz acknowledges that it’s our dreams as much as anything that poison our days—the dreams that elude us, anyway—and the better lives we can just imagine that make our merely good lives so unbearable.
“I always thought my death would be a tragedy,” complains Enzo the underemployed bandoneon player, who’s understandably distraught when his demise plays out more like a sitcom episode. Waking up one morning, Enzo discovers that his daughter is still upset about last night’s fight over her no-good boyfriend. She continues to ignore her father, and—as first his wife and then his brother join in the cold-shouldering—Enzo comes to realize that the long-lost musician friend who’s turned up unexpectedly hasn’t come for a social visit. Like Enzo, Piguyi has crossed over—and he’s here to help make the trip a little easier for his old pal.
Standard I-can-see-you-but-you-can’t-see-me stuff, at least to start with, but Muñoz deploys it wittily enough. And as the complications darken, with family members confessing how thoroughly miserable Enzo had been making them lately, Muñoz asks Enzo and audience alike to consider whether living in the past or living for the future doesn’t sometimes make a person useless in the present.
The 80-minute one-act can feel like a TV half-hour stretched to fill, but Teatro de la Luna’s production, set to the jaunty-melancholy sounds of the tango, has its pleasures. Most come when director Mario Marcel, who also plays Enzo, isn’t busy overselling the comedy. Peter Pereyra’s otherworld-weary Piguyi has an intriguing stillness about him, and there’s even a piquancy to Marcel’s disenchanted dreamer as he discovers that he’s gone from romantic youth to bitter middle-aged man without ever meaning to surrender.
Self-conscious performances among the surviving family—Monalisa Arias as rebellious daughter Yanina, Marycarmen Wila as widow Verónica, Arturo Martínez as interloping Uncle Lucho—and dubious design work from the sound and lighting team mean some moments could be rawer and others could be funnier. But Muñoz understands how self-doubt can make a man mean even to the ones he loves—and how to keep her cautionary comedy on the safe side of maudlin. So if it isn’t a perfect production or a play for the ages, maybe it’s good enough for now.
There’s been a storm when the lights come up on If We Are Women, and don’t think author Joanna McClelland Glass doesn’t mean that as a portent. Three generations of women confront a death and a deflowering in this talky, weepy dramedy, and if the speechifying weren’t so overblown so often, it might be tempting to give Glass credit for a certain amount of insight. She is, after all, wrestling with much the same conundrum Muñoz is contemplating—hell, Glass even lobs an explicit snark or two at Chekhov, tongue-in-cheek reminders that her dissatisfied sorority is living squarely in Three Sisters territory.
Accomplishment is their Moscow, the illusion they long for even as they misunderstand it. Plain-spoken, illiterate Ruth (June Hansen) resents a youth lost to hard farm labor on the Canadian frontier, while her famous writer daughter, Jessica (Lynn Steinmetz), regrets not having gone to college; Jessica’s hyperliterate ex-mother-in-law, Rachel (Jewell Robinson), who briskly dispatches New York Times crosswords while bantering about Beckett and Ibsen and Shakespeare, mourns the endless future that would’ve opened out before her if only her two degrees had come from better schools. Each is the other’s dream realized, and each hungers for something more; all of them lash out at each other for slights imagined and wrongs most real, and as their accumulated resentments come crashing down on Jessica’s prodigal daughter (Sarah Fischer), who’s been out all night losing her virginity to a ne’er-do-well rich kid, the point Glass makes over and over again is a poignant one: In a society that insists everything can be perfected, it’s not easy to be content simply being.
Women gets points for structural cleverness and many an apt literary wink-nudge, but with the exception of an urgently believable Fischer, Steven Carpenter’s cast hadn’t quite conquered the mountain of verbiage on opening weekend, so the play didn’t exactly have its best face on. That said, the improbably articulate characters—even in extremity, they talk in ornate paragraphs, unless they’re talking in blunt proverbs—tend to get in the way of their author’s relatively humane take on their situation. Things’ll doubtless get better as those speeches get internalized, but at first apprehension Glass’ women seem a brittle and artificial lot.CP