RED BANK: ‘ROOM’ FOR SOMETHING NEW @TRTC

Tony MenesesPlaywright Tony Meneses is the author of GUADALUPE IN THE GUEST ROOM, the comedy-drama that makes its world premiere on the stage of Two River Theater, beginning in previews this weekend.

A love story of an altogether different sort makes its bow on Valentine’s Day in Red Bank, courtesy of Two River Theater Company.

Written by Guadalajara-born/ Brooklyn-based playwright Tony Meneses, Guadalupe in the Guest Room is a tale of “two people with nothing in common but a shared grief” that’s described as “a deeply moving and very funny celebration of life, new beginnings, and the healing power of telenovelas.” Directed by Daniella Topol (last season’s Wind in the Willows Christmas), it’s a study in what happens when middle-aged Mexican woman Guadalupe (Broadway, stage and TV veteran Socorro Santiago) comes to stay with Steve (Charles Socarides), the American husband of her recently and suddenly deceased daughter — a scenario filtered through the emotional hyperreality of Spanish language TV soap operas.

the Drama Desk at redbankgreen caught up with Tony Meneses as Tech Week loomed and the first curtain neared.

redbankgreen: So wind us back to the start of the process by which GUADALUPE took up residence at Two River’s place in Red Bank.

TONY MENESES: Well, the play was chosen for the 2013 Playwrights Week at Lark Play Development Center — they asked me which directors I’d like to work with, and we were lucky to have Daniella Topol involved from the start. Daniella already had a relationship with Two River because of Wind in the Willows, so she passed the script to (TRTC artistic director) John Dias, and he liked it so much that he came to see it. We did a reading of it at Two River last year, and then not too long after that they put it on the regular schedule for this season.

We recall Dias on stage at last spring’s season announcement event, paraphrasing Emily Dickinson and telling everyone how your play “blew the top of his head off.” 

John’s been a supporter of the play from the start, and Daniella’s just been a great fit for the whole project. You know, when you hang around the Off Broadway theater scene in New York, you wind up operating under the assumption that everyone out there is doing new work all the time. But then you learn what it takes to get that new work out in front of a broader audience, and you really come to appreciate what people like Two River Theater do.

Two River has worked very hard to reach out to the area’s Latino audience, through programs like their annual CROSSING BORDERS festival and productions like last season’s PINKOLANDIA. But even though GUADALUPE fits in well with that sort of outreach effort, there are some universal themes at work here, that should speak to all members of the audience. Tell us about that.

It’s a comedy of misunderstanding… with flourishes of romance. A play is essentially two characters talking to each other at any time, and your primary goal as a playwright is to turn conflict between the characters into harmony, into resolution. Here the conflict is a cultural one… the language barrier, the sense that you’re in a place where you don’t have a voice. And the bonding comes from watching telenovelas.

My mother was a huge inspiration for this play, and I’ve tried to capture her spirit. I’m the baby of the family, so I was just one year old when my family moved to the United States, to Albuquerque. Then, on my thirteenth birthday, we moved to Dallas, and I went all through high school there. So all the kids in the family would speak English to each other in the house, while my parents, who were in their 30s when they moved here, spoke Spanish and struggled with their English. But I grew up watching ’90s telenovelas like Corazón Salvaje (‘Savage Heart’) — which was a period piece set against the days of colonialism — and that would be something we’d do together.

My mother has always been my biggest supporter, and this play is an expression of gratitude toward her… And at the same time, it’s a chance to bring a 60-ish Latina character to the center stage, to take a person like that who’s always kind of been stuck off on the sidelines, and bring her to the fore. It’s also been a goal of mine to translate one of my works into Spanish, and I was excited to learn that Two River is going to be presenting a performance with Spanish language titles (scheduled for 3 pm on Saturday, March 7 as part of TRTC’s Nosotros community outreach program).

Is the play set in the Southwest, in one of the places where your family lived? And would you say that there’s a lot of you, a lot of your life, in there?

It’s actually set somewhere in the Midwest — not in anyplace specific, although I think of it as being Ohio, where I went to college. I have a soft spot for the place and the people who live there. So between that and my mother there are some real-life influences, but there are also things that come from other places: from the world of the telenovelas. There are four actors in the play — and without giving too much away, we do some creative doubling, where we have actors who are playing ‘real world’ characters in addition to characters from the play-within-a-play that is the telenovela they watch together.

You’ve told a story from your early childhood in interviews in which your mom just couldn’t bring herself to punish you even when you were being uncooperative, thanks to a well-timed tear. I think you referred to yourself as “one sensitive little bastard.”

I was a well-behaved little kid… but an awful student back in Albuquerque. I had a teacher who told me ‘you know you’re smarter than this,’ and after that I really started trying, started doing well in school. Eventually I auditioned for high school shows and really got into it — I responded to characters communicating with each other. I knew by then I wanted to be a screenwriter, and I wound up majoring in playwriting when I went off to college.

So the theater bug bit at a fairly early age? And your parents were cool with you pursuing a path that doesn’t often represent the best way to make a living in America?

I just knew early on that I wanted to write — and I wasn’t pushed into doing something I didn’t want to do by my family. There were no scenes like, ‘you must go into the family business.’ As I’ve said, they were very supportive.

I grew up poor, and I had a sense from the start that I was never gonna make money as a playwright, that it had to mean something more to me than that. My career is starting to gain traction (two of Meneses’ earlier plays saw premieres in Chicago, while he’s been the recipient of a Kennedy Center ACTF Latino Playwriting Award), but I still teach as an adjunct… I essentially have three jobs, and I manage to cobble together a living.

Guadalupe in the Guest Room goes up in previews on Saturday, February 14, opens on Friday, February 27 and runs through March 15 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $42 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.