"On the Road"
There are two Lears now commanding local stages: one is over in Brooklyn at BAM, where Sir Antony Sher’s king is learning how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child; the other is Lear deBessonet, the brilliant young director of a new musical at the Public about a thankless child who comes to see the error of her ways.
|Gizel Jimenez, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
That musical, with book and lyrics by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, is Miss You Like Hell, whose decidedly shaky script deBessonet has fashioned into a physically lovely, emotionally moving theatrical experience. It’s replete with the kind of songs you want to hear again, a uniformly outstanding ensemble led by two remarkable performers, and, at least on the surface, driven by a subject of immediate public concern.
Hudes, the first Latina to win a Pulitzer Prize (Water by the Spoonful), takes on the earthquake issue of undocumented immigrants in Miss You Like Hell. For all the political tremors dormant in the subject, however, her play is really schmaltz-porn about an estranged mother and daughter’s reconciliation.
The former is Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a flashy, firmly packed, hot tamale in close-fitting jeans and tops (costumes by Emilio Sosa), with a pageboy coif whose ends are tinted in bright red. The latter is her precocious, grungy, unwashed, 16-year-old daughter, Olivia (Gizel Jiménez), her unkempt mop of hair piled on her head like a nest in which a rat might find a comfy home and raise a family of its own.
Beatriz is an unorthodox, promiscuous, artistic type. Olivia is a budding, book-loving writer who drops all the hot-button names of modern literature, from Ginsberg to Vonnegut, in a song called “Bibliography.” Disaffected, potentially suicidal, and very hard to like, she writes a blog for other “castaways” like her, and has at least one faithful follower who relies on her advice. Oddly, for all her literary knowledge, we’re expected to believe she has no idea of what ICE is.
Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, lost custody of her out-of-wedlock daughter to the girl’s father four years earlier and then disappeared to live on the West Coast. Now, having borrowed a friend’s decrepit pickup she’s driven cross country to Philadelphia to arrive, unannounced at Olivia's digs. She tells Olivia, who resents her for failing to gain her custody, she wants her to go off with her in the middle of the night for a week of mom and daughter bonding.
After some angry reluctance, Olivia actually agrees to go (that’s theatre for you) and the piece becomes an odyssey of their trek back to LA. When Olivia learns that her mother is being threatened with deportation and that she wants Olivia to testify on her behalf, she refuses, believing it’s another example of Beatriz's self-serving behavior.
Before long the women experience the first of their offbeat on-the-road experiences when they meet a couple of gay, grizzled, Harley-riding, Vietnam vets, the hulking Mo (Michael Mulheren) and the pint-sized Higgins (David Patrick Kelly), on their own odyssey to get married in each of the 50 states.
Their other adventures include an encounter with a legal clerk (Shawna M. Hamic) in South Dakota, where Beatriz tries to expunge a marijuana infraction; being pulled over by a cop (Marcus Paul James) for a broken tail light, leading to the paperless Beatriz’s arrest; meeting Manuel (Danny Bolero) a widowed, Peruvian tamale peddler (cue a tasty song called “Tamales”), who joins them in their truck; visiting Yellowstone (which inspires a song of that name, terrifically sung by Edwards) to find Olivia’s avid follower, the junior ranger Pearl (Latoya Edwards); and, among other things, attending Beatriz’s deportation hearing, during which the cleaned-up girl, now fully on her mother’s side, delivers a touching speech (song, actually: "Miss You Like Hell").
An epilogue concludes the intermissionless, hour and 45-minute show with a marvelous coup de théâtre when a substantial, olive green border wall slides out to divide the stage from rear to front into Tijuana and San Diego, although I won’t say why.
For all the talk about ICE (we even see someone wearing one of their jackets), the script doesn’t make a particularly strong legal case for Beatriz’s remaining in the U.S. She’s a feisty, colorful, wise, and lovable woman, but she’s far from a model citizen. The escapades she and Olivia share could as easily be those of a mother dying of cancer and determined to reconcile with her estranged child before she passes.
What happens during Olivia and Beatriz’s journey is the usual farfetched stuff of road-trip stories, each with their own versions of Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops, and Circe, concluding with a weepy resolution that makes everything worthwhile. We accept it here because deBessonet’s creative vision allows us to appreciate the reality of the underlying mother-daughter relationship despite their expression through implausible events.
The Public’s Newman stage has been removed by designer Riccardo Hernandez and replaced by a shiny, ground-level, blue floor, into which an automatic revolve has been inserted. It matches the upstage blue frame that, like the floor, has images of white birds painted on it. You sit either in the traditional auditorium or in one of the two rows of seats on the left and right of the acting area. Upstage is where the eight-member ensemble sits on mismatched chairs, serving as a chorus or joining the action as characters.
|Marcus Paul James, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Mulheren, Latoya Edwafds, Shawna M. Hamic, Marinda Anderson, Andrew Cristi. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Six musicians sit on a raised platform behind them, fronting a backdrop used as part of Tyler Micoleau’s enchanting lighting scheme. McKeown’s music covers multiple styles, some of it folksy, some of it country, some of jazzy, much of it toe-tappingly infectious, and all of it good to hear.
The script is often questionable but deBessonet, with the supportive but modest choreography of Danny Mefford, stages it with consistent grace, employing a minimalist aesthetic (stools serve a multitude of purposes) and making considerable use of the slowly revolving stage. She also inspires perfectly honed performances from her interesting-looking company, particularly the exceptional Rubin-Vega and Jiménez.
Rubin-Vega, so brilliant in Empanada Loca and many other stage appearances, is every square inch the “Lioness” mom she sings about, a veritable force of nature who will let nothing stop her from achieving her goal. Even when her voice is not quite up to a song’s musical demands she puts it over with the intensity of a tropical hurricane.
Her unforgettable performance is matched by the equally memorable Jiménez, who combines impressive vocal gifts with passionate acting.
Lear deBessonet has talent sharper than a serpent’s tooth. I can’t wait to see her sink her fangs into something really worth biting.
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through May 13