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From Horatio Alger to Hillary Clinton, countless people arrive in New York every year to take Manhattan, make a fresh start, and deliquesce into our country’s most famous melting pot. As difficult as it is to make it there, New York’s level playing field is the great equalizer. Regardless of where you’re from and what you looked like before you got there, in New York, you’re as good as your name, your brains, the strength of your bootstraps, and how ready you are to open the clasp on your gray-flannel Kate Spade handbag.
So thought 26-year-old Marisol Perez, the title character in Jose Rivera’s magical-realist drama, Marisol. That is, until she realized that she was being taken by Manhattan, and not the other way around. “This town knows when you’re alone. That’s when it sends out the ghouls and the death squads,” she laments. Commuting from her native Bronx to her publishing job, Marisol (Vera Soltero) is stretched to the limit in trying to keep her family ties to the barrio and fit into a homogeneous, raceless corporate environment. “Miss Puerto Rican Yuppie Princess of the Universe,” her blond co-worker, June (Samantha Kearney), lovingly brands her, as if “Puerto Rican” and “Yuppie Princess” were mutually exclusive. Point is, Marisol is torn, and despite her unflagging faith in God, both of her lives in New York—home and work—fall into the quiet-desperation genre.
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The plot sounds promising enough at the start, and resting on the poetic intensity of Rivera’s new-millennial-apocalypse dogma, it could have been just as promising at the finish. But in a world of fantasy and horrifically out-of-the-ordinary events, the characters themselves have to be real enough for us to believe that they could literally live next door. Unfortunately, director Tom Mallan’s production suffers from a lack of irony and momentum that even talented and capable actors can’t compensate for.
While Marisol is asleep in her bed after a particularly harrowing series of provocations by her Bronx neighbors, her biker-jacket-wearing guardian angel (Yasmin Tuazon) comes to her in a dream. At first, Marisol is excited, thinking that perhaps she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. But the news is more grave than miraculous: “Because God is old and dying and taking the rest of us with Him…angels are going to kill the King of Heaven and restore the universe with His blood. And I’m going to lead them,” the angel says, explaining that she no longer has time to guard Marisol because she will be devoting her full attention to the holy revolt. Now, the protective services formerly provided by the angel—such as preventing some 66,603 sexual assaults—will go undone. “Are you gonna make the Bronx safe for me? Are you gonna make miracles and reduce my rent?” Marisol wonders, but she never gets an answer. With a kiss, the angel flees, and Marisol—like a fun, fearless, female Hamlet—is left with little more than confusion and a hell of an excuse for why she’s late for work the next day.
Ensconced in her Manhattan office, Marisol learns from June (whom Kearney amusingly and energetically portrays Joan Rivers-style) that a woman with the name Marisol Perez was killed on Marisol’s street the night before. A freakout ensues. Launching into a humorous diatribe about all that is wrong with our postmillennial world, June convinces Marisol to play hooky and hang out at the Brooklyn apartment June shares with her unemployed idiot-savant brother, Lenny (Bruce Holmes). When Marisol and June get to the apartment, Lenny, whose Brooklyn accent doesn’t fully develop until Act 2, goes psycho, looking more like a Bates College junior than a mentally ill layabout. When Lenny threatens June with a knife, she kicks him out of the house, weakly explaining that she should have done as much long ago. Just when we think Lenny the Crazy Guy is gone foreva, he turns up again in Marisol’s bedroom, alluding to having murdered his sister. Although Holmes’ Lenny sometimes unrealistically demonstrates his craziness by hopping like a child skipping rope, he deftly and heartbreakingly spews what could be Rivera’s own psyche shining through: “There are whole histories of me you can’t guess,” he explains to Marisol.
As the war in heaven takes its toll on Earth, all sorts of nouveau-hell, Blade Runner-type stuff starts to happen. The moon leaves the sky; the salt of dead angel bodies makes its way into apples and cows’ milk and Central Park’s ponds; the sun rises in the North; the Empire State Building moves; and there are no cabs to be found. Everything is dark, Marisol’s angel has lost her wings, and it looks as if the world will end at any moment. But Rivera isn’t going to let us off that easy. His complicated web of metaphysical social commentary grows more magical and less realistic with every plot turn. The most amusing and moving incident is, perhaps, when Lenny, former rapist archetype and living metaphor for “savage differences between girls and boys,” turns up as a cranky birthing mother, lashing out at Marisol during a priceless Lamaze moment: “I’m breathing, you asshole!” Holmes (not as Lenny, but as a sensitive homeless-man burn victim) and Soltero are at their best when sharing a tender, passionate kiss. “So? Feeling horny? Can I hope?” cheeks the burn victim. And thanks to Soltero’s overwhelmingly compassionate commitment to her character, we can actually feel Marisol’s attraction to this conventionally unattractive man.
At certain junctures, Mallan skillfully weaves Adrianna Daugherty’s sound design into the action, coupling it with Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White’s imaginative and often beautifully surreal slides—alternately, of the characters and the settings—projected on a giant upstage screen. For example, the burning-flesh scene is one of the most haunting and realistic images I have ever seen portrayed on stage. But whereas the cybercyclorama effortlessly denotes changes in time and scene, the cumbersome scene changes conducted by the running crew are way too slow to maintain momentum between scenes. And Maura McGinn’s lifeless portrayal of a lifeless stranger and the amateurish sound effects that result in Marisol’s final transition are too hastily rendered to allow Soltero’s intense and impassioned portrayal of Marisol to reach its full potential.
At the play’s end, although an inspiring trinity of new heroes emerges triumphant in the face of betrayal and Seattlesque stone-throwing toward heaven, the cheesy projected image of a crown (representing God the King, I suppose) and the too-soft Journeyish ’80s music ruined any hope I had of being moved. But Mallan’s point was taken. Throughout this heavenly apocalypse, Rivera’s metaphors rise beyond the characters to a place in everyone’s mind where, despite the prosperity by which our society seems to be beleaguered, things are not always going to be OK. And for the vast majority of people in this world, life still sucks—and hope always remains. CP