Mando Alvarado’s BASILICA closed on Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, so these brief comments will neither help you decide to go or stay away. BASILICA, named for what is actually a famous Catholic church in San Juan, Texas, a largely Latino border town in the Rio Grande Valley, is about a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is Joe Garza (Felix Solis), a super-macho, boozing (but not womanizing) ex-high school football star who gave up a shot at college ball to do what he had to do by working as an auto mechanic to support his Jesus-worshiping wife, Lela (Selenis Leyva), and his kids. One child is a high school senior, Ray (Jake Cannavale), who struggles to defy his oppressively resistant father when he expresses his desire to go to Lake Forest College in far off Chicago, and the other is the 12-year-old Jessica (Yadira Guevara-Prip), whose “imaginary friend” disappears and who tries to get him back by putting on different religions as if they were the latest tweeners’ fad; at one point her preoccupation leads her to perform the ritual killing of a neighbor’s kitten. Thickening the guacamole is Joe’s bitter sister, Lou Helms-Garza (Rosal Colón), who wears spiked heels and leopard-spotted spandex pants to run the bar her grandfather started and who blames her problems on the abortion she once had, and Cesar (Bernardo Cubria), Joe’s married drinking buddy and coworker.
Cherry Lane Theatre
Joe, for all his awful excesses, sacrificed himself to raise a child that wasn’t his, a child he deeply loves, but one he is willing to condemn to the same dead-end life in the same dead-end town in which he himself chose to remain. He insists that the local state college, Pan-Am (apparently, the University of Texas-Pan American), is good enough for Ray. Talking of his own life issues, he’s likely to say, I dealt with it, so you can deal with it too. Or, “My father didn’t help me,” so why should I help you? Joe finds it impossible to accept that Ray might think himself better than himself, although this is likely because he bears a secret resentment about Ray’s not being his true flesh and blood.
Despite the character stereotypes, familiar situations, predictable and melodramatic developments (including what I thought the gratuitous death of a central character), and religious conflicts (Gil and Lela’s faith is balanced by Joe’s “there is no God” attitude) the play holds you in its grip through the conviction of its cast, most notably Felix Solis as the aggressively chauvinistic Joe, who keeps shouting at his son to “man up.” Solis is not afraid to mine the character’s most unpleasant and even nasty attitudes because he also is able to explore the character’s inner charm, as when he playfully woos his reluctant wife into having sex with him. He is believably dangerous and authentically paternal. It’s a damned good job of acting. The other actors support him with conviction and believability; some critics have commented on Jake Cannavale’s inexperience (he’s the son of the dynamic Bobby Cannavale), but I thought his quiet, laidback, artistically inclined Ray (he’s also his school’s football team mascot), an excellent foil for Solis’s loudmouthed and hyperkinetic Joe. When he does finally stand up to Joe, it counts.
Four locales are squeezed by designer Raul Abrego onto the Cherry Lane’s miniscule stage. An alleyway cluttered with junk at audience left, the interior and back porch of a small house, a priest’s confessional, and a barroom at the right. A huge cross on the rear wall hovers over all. The action moves smoothly from one to the other under the effective direction of Jerry Ruiz, and the costumes (Carisa Kelly), lighting (Burke Brown), and sound design (Jane Shaw) all work in harmony to evoke the small town feeling of life among these working class people. When Father Gil delivers his homilies, he does so directly to the audience, looking spectators directly in the eye and accusing them of this and that. Entrances and exits are often made through the single aisle, which helps open the space a bit.
BASILICA, for all its flaws, was better than many other works of the new season, and I’ll look forward to the next play from its promising dramatist.