Saturday, February 11, 2017

133. Review: FADE (seen February 10, 2017)

"Mad Mex"
I learned a word I didn’t know and didn’t hear one I was expecting during Mexican-born playwright Tanya Saracho’s interesting but overly contrived two-hander Fade. The play, originally seen at the Denver Center Theatre, is now at the Cherry Lane in a Primary Stages production shrewdly directed by Jerry Ruiz.

Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
The word I didn’t know was Latinx, which as the Huffington Post explains, “is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino or even Latin@." The word I didn’t hear and thought I would in a play during which two people in Los Angeles debate Mexican identity, is Chicano, a reference to West Coast Mexican-Americans I first became familiar with while sharing the driving duties of a cross-country trip with a self-described Chicano back in1962. Is this now out of date?
Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
Fade’s treatment of identity, sexual, and office politics, as well as class warfare, is the mildly spicy flavoring of a play that actually could be about people of any ethnicity; its central subjects are the shallowness and cut-throat practices of network television and the lengths to which an ambitious but unscrupulous writer will go to advance her own career. Saracho, very active on the Chicago theatre scene (where I saw her quite good Our Lady of the Underpass), obviously knows whereof she writes; her impressive résumé reveals extensive TV script experience, including ABC’s Devious Maids and HBO’s Looking and Girls.
Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
In Fade she looks at the problems faced by a young, attractive writer, Lucia (Annie Dow), transplanted from Chicago, where she worked from home in her PJs, to a glass-walled office in an LA corporate building. Mexican by birth but seemingly fully assimilated into middle-class American life, Lucia peppers her unaccented English with Spanish and has a profane motor-mouth that would win the Grand Prix if it was a racing car. She’s been assigned to a series featuring a Latino heroine only to learn from a smug, senior writer that she’s there mainly to fill a diversity quota.
Annie Dow. Photo: James Leynse.
Lucia, feeling like a fish out of water, has landed this obviously well-paying gig (judging from her frequent fashionista costume changes) on the basis of a single novel. She’s offended, though, by the cheesiness of the series, and has little confidence that she can create such crummy stuff. When it comes to smugness, though, she definitely holds her own.
Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
Early on she meets a janitor, Abel (Eddie Martinez), an ex-Marine with a Semper fi tattoo. Assuming, with barely a glance, that he’s Mexican, Lucia speaks to him in Spanish, expressing surprise when he eventually addresses her in English. Why she should have assumed that he was Mexican—or even Latinx, to be PC—escapes me, just as I would have had no idea of her own background had the exposition not made it clear. Perhaps there’s some universal perception that all LA janitors have to be from south of the border. Abel, by the way, a third generation American born and raised in the El Sereno neighborhood, refers to himself as Mexican, not Mexican-American.

As Lucia and Abel begin to bond—despite the unbridgeable social gap between them—he quickly gets wise to her aspirations while she becomes increasingly dependent on this ethnically familiar guy’s steadfast support of her struggles to make an impression on her obnoxious but powerful boss; Abel, though, has good reason to hesitate about revealing too much of himself to Lucia. Finally, though, he leaves an opening she immediately takes advantage of. Then, in a move you can see coming like an 18-wheeler, she betrays him by using what he told her in a way that benefits her career (not unlike certain documented situations) but makes Abel one mad Mex.
Stuffed with one-liners (including two limp ones alluding to Trump) that too infrequently raise chuckles (or require you know Spanish to comprehend), the highly episodic Fade shifts back and forth from fast-paced comedy to serious dilemmas, stumbling now and then to maintain consistent believability. Why, one wonders, does the plot-turning device of having Abel discover what Lucia’s been up to hinge on her leaving him alone in her office with her laptop half-open; you might as well think you’re protecting that piece of steak on the table from your Great Dane by moving it a couple of inches from the edge. Or why would she not realize he’ll eventually see the episode anyway?

And, given her inability to come up with something for her series without stealing it from someone’s life, why should we believe one successful script would be followed by others, as the ending implies? It’s also unconvincing for a published novelist who’s obviously smart enough to land a coveted TV writing gig not to know the difference between the Marines and Army or to be ignorant of the “Semper fi” motto.

Moreover, for characters who make so many references to identity politics, both Lucia and Abel are poor representatives. They themselves are prone to making sweeping generalizations, not only about Mexicans, but about whites, Central Americans, and Columbians.

Though well-acted by Annie Dow, in a bilingual portrayal, Lucia is so self-centered, verbose, annoying, and ruthless that watching her whining and maneuvering for the play’s 90-minutes duration is increasingly uncomfortable. Fortunately, Eddie Martinez’s grounded honesty as Abel creates an ideal balance, although the actor has a tendency to play too often while directly facing the missing fourth wall.

Carisa Kelly’s costumes for Lucia are very tasteful; Mariana Sanchez’s office set, with its upstage corridor and surprise effect at the end, is fine; and Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting is terrific, particularly the final moments as Abel is seen vacuuming in silhouette.  It’s in this moment that the stage directions, “FADE to BLACK” give us a hint of where the title comes from.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through March 5


  1. Thank you Professor Sam for blending insightful informative with an engaging style.