Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse to Oct. 19
The Argentine/French playwright who called himself Copi was dying of AIDS when he penned Una Visita Inoportuna, his farce about a man dying of AIDS. You’d think that would lend the evening resonance at Gala Hispanic Theater, but Abel López’s frenetic staging can’t really be said to discover any as it pursues pratfalls and sitcom silliness.
More’s the pity, since Copi (whose given name was Raúl Damonte Botana) appears to have been a sort of Latino Joe Ortongay, corrosively witty, and eager to outrage polite society whenever possible. In fact, in chronicling Death’s inopportune visit to his hospitalized hero, Copi quite deliberately trotted out a Loot-like crowd of oddballs.
There’s the buxom nurse (Eva Piccolo) who’s just dying to try opium, the frazzled doctor (Jorge Alvarez) whose hobby is lobotomies, the gay buddy (Luis Caram) who’s forever caught with his pants down, the famished diva (mezzo-soprano Ana M. Castrello) who swallows drumsticks whole, and the empty-headed cutie (Prescott Avirett) who makes the protagonist briefly consider living past his self-imposed deadline of 5 p.m.
Alas, at Gala, López has all these Ortonesque folks dashing around as if they were appearing in a bus-and-truck tour of No Sex Please, We’re Spanish rather than in a caustic AIDS comedy. There’s precious little snap to their comic timing. And there’s barely subtext in their delivery, let alone acid, so the jokes never sting and the fever-dream plotting ends up feeling completely pointless.
No one appears to have considered, for example, why the protagonista flamboyantly queeny theatrical impresario named Cirilo (Hugo Medrano)is so attached to his makeup kit. Might he have lesions he wants to cover up? Nah…too edgy. So Gala’s production goes for the easiest possible laugh and has him powder one of his bandages, a joke that would have been right at home on I Love Lucy.
As Cirilo, Medrano is ingratiating, though he’s essentially reprising the performance he gave a few seasons ago in Kiss of the Spider Woman, minus the pathos. He’s clearly having a ball swirling capes and donning satin robes to impress Avirett’s clueless boy-toy, but he ends up a campy cipher at play’s end. Of the rest, Castrello’s ferocious diva registers most strongly, though the plot keeps her comatose for half the evening. (At first, the director seems to have a Margaret Dumont/Groucho Marx thing going between her and the doctor, but it’s hard to do Marx Bros. routines without even Karamazov Bros. on hand.)
Costumer Alessandra D’Ovidio’s flashy vinyl nurse’s outfit and floor-length gowns are amusingly overstated, and if Tony Cisek’s setting seems wrongheadedtufted satin and a crystal chandelier in a hospital’s charity ward?hanging Cirilo’s IV bottles from that chandelier is a nice touch. The evening (which is performed in Spanish with headset English translation) could use more of that brand of insanity. Lots more.
Cisek also contributed the faux-concrete bulkheads that keep sliding around in the first act of Washington Shakespeare Company’s Bent before resolving themselves into the walls of Dachau. Martin Sherman’s melodrama about Nazi persecution of homosexuals may be a rickety affair, but no effort has been spared in making it seem at least physically sturdy in its 20th-anniversary production at Clark Street Playhouse.
To be moved around so casually, those bulkheads can’t be much more than dressed-up plywood, but they’re solid enough that storm troopers (not to mention drag queens) in full regalia can strut across their tops. Turned on their sides, they become load-bearing ramps leading to a mass grave. In fact, they’re persuasive enough that when concentration-camp prisoners start lugging heavy chunks of concrete back and forth between them in Act 2, you just assume it’s debris from a bulkhead that somehow got smashed.
Would that as much attention had been paid to making other aspects of the show so persuasive. A script that heads off to Dachau with little more on its mind than getting its leading man to say “I love you” needs all the help it can get from cast and director. With the exception of a couple of sharp performances, this one isn’t getting much.
The problems start in the opening scenea morning-after encounter between rich guy Max (Christopher Borg), who drank too much the night before, and his delicate dancer/boyfriend Rudy (Jeff Lofton), who didn’t. Played broadly and unbelievablythe actors push for hangover laughsthis sequence, which needs to establish these two as a devoted (albeit mismatched) couple, instead sets the audience up for boulevard comedy, apparently for the sake of shock value, since the SS will soon break up the party.
Subsequent scenes detailing Max’s noisily surreptitious attempts to get himself and Rudy out of Germany, and Rudy’s noisily blithering insistence that he’s going to attend his dance classes, Nazis or no Nazis, aren’t much more credible. Curiously, though everyone’s terrified of being outed, nobody appears to have heard of whispering. Or of subtlety.
Nor are matters helped by uncharacteristically clumsy staging by Dorothy Neumann, who permits characters to leave a lamp burning during a scene that’s going to end in a blackout, and who choreographs a supposedly brutal beating in such a way that the puncher’s body doesn’t block the audience’s view of his obviously faked blows.
She should also have realized that casting an actor as husky as Borg in the part of a concentration-camp prisoner was going to seriously compromise the evening’s Dachau sequences. On opening night, when a fellow prisoner said, “Your body’s beautiful,” to the shirtless Max, who then sucked in his gut as he replied, “I take care of it,” the audience could hardly contain itself.
There are brighter spots. Jim Zidar is nicely subdued as Max’s closeted Uncle Freddie, while Ian LeValley is at once amusing and chillingly pragmatic as a drag queen turned collaborator. And Christopher Henley is pretty harrowing as Horst, a prisoner who wears his pink triangle without shame as he teaches Max about survival and about love.
But they’re not enough to redeem a play that feels dated, preachy, and just a tad obvious in an age when the pink triangle has been transformed into a symbol of gay pride. In 1977, the Broadway opening of Bent represented a radical step forward for gay-themed theater. Today, what seems far more radical is that the evening’s pleas for understanding and tolerance could so recently have struck audiences as controversial. CP