By TOM CHESEK
“We’re just a couple of quiet neighbors,” says Guadalupe (Socorro Santiago), a middle-aged Mexican woman who has recently lost her adult daughter Claudia. “We don’t have much to say to each other, even if we could.”
The “neighbor” she refers to is her American son in law, newly widowed Steve (Charles Socarides). But while these two characters find themselves thrust together by tragic circumstances (and kept apart by an awkward language barrier), it’s a shared guilty pleasure that draws them closer in Guadalupe in the Guest Room, the play by Tony Meneses now entering the final weekend of its world premiere engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater.
LAW & ORDER’s S. Epatha Merkerson and LA LAW’s Jimmy Smits are among the co-stars of LACKAWANNA BLUES, the made-for-TV film (adapted from Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical one-man show) that screens for free Saturday night at Two River Theater.
Directed by Daniella Topol (last season’s Wind in the Willows Christmas), and staged in the theater’s “black box” Marion Huber performance space, Guadalupe presents a couple of people who have very different ways of dealing with their devastating grief and loss — people for whom the return to the orderly routines of household and office seem to be creating more problems than solutions. There’s an emptiness in their relationship that’s bigger than the absence of their departed loved one — a dead-zone of words unsaid and emotions unexpressed — and it’s a gulf that only begins to be bridged when the two sit down in front of the TV to watch their new favorite telenovela, a florid costume soap opera whose title translates as “Love is Never Forgotten.”
Inviting the vivid characters from the show (quite literally) into their living room, these two denizens of different worlds bond with each other through laughter, thrills, and a fascination with the over-the-top adventures of the plucky damsel who happens to be named Claudia; her blind twin sister; her dashing suitor, and the black-clad brigand who seeks to sabotage their epic romance. The soapy scenarios (enacted con brio by Deonna Bouye and Alfredo Huereca) signal the most entertaining portions of the play, offering a welcome escape valve from some of the more somber corners of the plot, even as their melodramatic antics serve to trigger some complicated feelings that can’t be paused with the remote — and that are more prone to be dealt with by sulking than by swordplay.
The two relatives-by-marriage are joined in their wintry, vaguely Midwestern “real world” setting by a pair of supporting characters, also portrayed by Bouye and Huereca. The garrulous gardener Roberto has designs on securing a series of dinner dates with Guadalupe — while a fellow schoolteacher friend of the departed Claudia is working with Guadalupe to translate her late daughter’s unpublished children’s stories from English to Spanish. Deonna Bouye also does a brief turn in flashback as the dying daughter — a wise, courageous, brilliantly creative and all-too-perfect cipher — but it’s these secondary figures who curiously make the biggest impression. And in a play that’s centered around two grieving people seeking to communicate with each other, we discover (and remember) much more about the other characters, than we do about Guadalupe’s own life back home, or Steve’s job that he’s obviously not ready to return to — nor for that matter do we walk away knowing much of anything about Claudia and Steve’s marriage.
While the director and playwright are adept at transitioning between “reality” and TV-fueled fantasy — and have successfully solved the issue of how to convey the switch between two languages, while presenting nearly all of the dialogue in English — there are conflicts and crises here that are quickly swept under the rug and dismissed, even as other quieter interludes get plenty of stage time (the sullen Steve’s cathartic outburst notwithstanding). There’s also some unavoidable resemblance, in that far-from-home Midwest setting and that back-and-forth between worlds, to last season’s Two River premiere production of Pinkolandia. Marion Williams’ set design is a stylized cutaway of a suburban house; framed by colorful storybook images, and suggesting that resolution must come to all stories; whether by a climactic duel or the goodnight kiss of a childhood bedtime favorite. But it’s the messier, edgier, gloriously imperfect characters that make for the most memorable theater — a fact that eludes the wise, dignified and ultimately unknowable Guadalupe.
Take it here for tickets to the remaining performances of Guadalupe in the Guest Room (Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 3 pm). Then take note of a free screening Saturday night inside the main Rechnitz auditorium at Two River — an 8 pm showing of Lackawanna Blues, the 2005 TV film adapted by Tony winning actor-director-playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson from his autobiographical one man show. Directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Terrence Howard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Marcus Franklin, Louis Gossett Jr. and Yasiin “Mos Def” Bey, it’s a study of Ruben’s life as a young boy growing up with a surrogate family, inside a boarding house in 1960’s Lackawanna, NY — and it’s offered as an appetizer to Two River Theater Company’s next mainstage production, the world premiere of Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine, about which more to come here on redbankgreen.