City Paper is not for tourists
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ play simultaneously follows three generations of young men from one Puerto Rican family as they go off to war: Grandpop (Norman Aronovic) to Korea, Pop (Manolo Santalla) to Vietnam, and Elliot (an assured, pitch-perfect Andrés Talero) to Iraq. Each man tells his story to the audience, and only the audience is privy to the manner in which each man’s experience contrasts with and mirrors the others’. Hudes’ structure makes good use of the title’s wince-inducing fugue metaphor, periodically allowing the characters’ competing voices to weave together while the play’s language assumes a poetic cadence and power. But once these flights of lyrical fancy pass, the more prosaic, hardscrabble details of day-to-day military existence, trench foot and all, reassert themselves. Talero turns in a naturalistic and deeply empathetic performance as a working-class Philly kid given to rhapsodizing about Denny’s breakfasts, Crunch Berries, and his mother’s macaroni salad. He’s careful to invest Elliot with intelligence and conviction so his character’s earnestness can’t be mistaken for naiveté. The same can’t be said of Manolo Santella’s performance as Pop. There’s a bit too many wide-eyed, gee-whiz actorly tics on display here, especially in the Korea scenes. And as Grandpop, Norman Aronovic leans too heavily into Hudes’ words, needlessly attempting to wring emotion out of lines that are already soaked with it. It throws off the play’s rhythm and creates an air of mystery around his character that’s more distracting than it needs to be. Laura Giannarelli provides much-needed connective tissue as Elliot’s mother (and former Army nurse) Ginny. The script relegates her to archetypal roles—nurse/mother/lover—but Giannarelli doesn’t allow that to flatten her nuanced performance. Instead, she stakes out territory squarely at the production’s emotional center, especially in a doozy of a monologue set in her back garden. “When Elliot left for Iraq, I went crazy with the planting. Begonias, ferns, trees,” she says. “A seed is a contract with the future.” Director Abel López’s staging is appropriately unsentimental; whenever brief simultaneity between the men’s experiences appears, he simply offers up the moment without milking it. Presented in English with Spanish captioning, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer on the subject of war, but then, what is left to say? In the end, Gala’s impressive production achieves everything it reaches for—and it reaches for a hell of a lot.