29 June 2012

'Chimichangas and Zoloft'

As our final production in the 2011-12 Atlantic Theater season, my usual theater companion, Diana, and I went back to Chelsea on Friday evening, 15 June, to see the world première of Fernanda Coppel’s Chimichangas and Zoloft. The production was staged by Jaime Castañeda at Atlantic Stage 2, the company’s second house on West 16th Street. (A week earlier, we’d been to the Atlantic Theater Company’s newly renovated home on West 20th Street to see John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church. That report appeared on ROT on 16 June.) The production began previews on 23 May, opened to the press on 3 June, and closed on 24 June.

The 26-year-old Coppel, who was born in Mexico and raised in San Diego, is what’s usually called an “emerging” playwright. (Sounds like something coming out of a cocoon, doesn’t it?) She earned an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU in 2009 where Chimichangas and Zoloft was her thesis play. (The play won the Asuncion Queer Latino Festival at the Bronx-based Pregones Theater in 2009 and Coppel received NYU’s John Holden Playwriting Award at graduation. She’s been a Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellow at Juilliard and a member of INTAR Theatre’s Maria Irene Fornes Playwrights Lab.) Her bio includes several other plays, but I don’t recognize any, though she’s worked—or been workshopped—at a number of area theaters, as well as some in Britain. I believe this may be her first major staging in New York City. In the New York Times, Jason Zinoman wrote that Coppel has an “intriguing comic voice” and Variety’s Marilyn Stasio said she “writes with the whip-smart humor and the world-weary disdain of a 16-year-old schoolgirl.”

The 90-minute play, which ATC asserts “examines happiness and sexuality through the eyes of two brazen teenagers,” is the story of two BFF’s, Jackie Martinez (Carmen Zilles) and Penelope Lopez (Xochitl Romero), middle-class suburban girls who are busy trying to grow up fast. As they go through their own changes (new boyfriends, coming out to their parents—that kind of thing), they fail to see that their fathers, attorney Ricardo Martinez (Teddy Cañez) and bartender Alejandro Lopez (Alfredo Narciso) are also going through some developments, trying to recapture some of their youth. The two dads also have a “secret” they’re trying hard to keep from their daughters. Kicking the turmoil off is the departure of Sonia Martinez (Zabryna Guevara), Jackie’s mother, who, having hit 40 and a major depression, takes off for parts unknown to binge on her comfort food and her comfort drug (as Variety dubbed them) of the play’s title. (I’d guess most of you know what Zoloft is—an antidepressant med—but for those who don’t go to Mexican restaurants, a chimichanga is a Tex-Mex dish of meat, rice, and other ingredients rolled in a wheat tortilla, like a burrito, then deep-fried.)

So, where to start? Oh, I know: This is a play that begins with a fart. Yeah, that’s right—Sonia farts before the lights come up! “That wasn’t me,” she claims, unsurprisingly, and then blames the greasy chimichangas she ate to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Sorta sets the tone, dontcha think? Other points: in the hour-and-a-half of the performance (of which only maybe an hour is “play”), there are I-don’t-know-how-many scenes (I lost count—eight or 10 at least) separated by blackouts and identified with a title projected above the center panel of the back of the set like a Brechtian device (“The Letter”; “Taebo Tapes”; “Bloated”; “Vag In The Air”). Between many of the dramatic (for lack of a more precise word) scenes are monologues by Sonia that are supposed to be illuminating but just interrupt the flow of whatever action Coppel has gotten going and, to my ear, add nothing. (I’ll even venture that if Coppel dropped Sonia as an actual character—even though she’s sort of the “title role” in a weird way—and just kept referring to her as the other characters do, she’d have at least as much impact and maybe more, and the script wouldn’t be so disjointed.) Some of the soliloquies are sort of poetic, like Coppel’s dialogue, but it’s a self-conscious kind of vernacular poetry, studied and crafted, not an organic or natural-sounding prose. Reined in and tamed, Coppel’s obvious love of words, her lyrical sense of how people might wish they spoke (but don’t), might aspire to the heights of the great poets of the theater—the Tennessee Williamses, Anton Chekhovs, or August Wilsons. But as of Chimichangas and Zoloft, she’s not nearly there yet. (On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that, for all the work Coppel must have done on this script since 2009, the developmental workshops through which it must have gone, Chimichangas still started out as a student play. Her audiences have been witnessing her first baby steps.)

Even without the labored monologues, the many short scenes, though some of them have an innate theatrical charm, especially some of the ones between Romero and Zilles, don’t cohere. Coppel’s telling a story and the scenes are episodes in that arc, but while that might work on TV, it doesn’t make a stage drama. While each vignette might have a point, and some of them are dramatically engaging, Coppel hasn’t made the big point, the real take-away theme, clear. This essentially means that there’s no through-line, and that’s where the play really falls. When the last scene came along, Jackie and Penelope each standing on the street waiting for the school bus, separated by several feet because by this time their fathers won’t let them talk to one another, I assumed there must be another scene coming. But there wasn’t and I turned to Diana and asked rhetorically, “Is that the end? What happened?” The action had ended, the story stopped, but the play wasn’t concluded. Everyone’s secrets had been revealed (though I’m not going to tell you what they are, in case you see the play yourselves), but what did it all add up to? The writer hasn’t really come to grips with a significant theme, each of the problems her characters deal with being what Back Stage reviewer Andy Propst called the familiar stuff of the “adult nighttime serial drama and afterschool special.” Unhappy families may be unhappy in their own fashions, but dysfunctional ones, it seems, all fall apart in similar ways.

The production, a kind of up-scale showcase (which is what the 99-seat Stage 2 is for), was nicely taken care of. I found the constant set changes necessitated by the script frustrating (in the small theater, everything has to be done by hand) and it attenuated the play needlessly, but the designs were all fine. (The sets were by Lauren Helpern, costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay, lighting by Grant W. S. Yeager, and sound by Broken Chord. One particular lighting/set effect fascinated me: up center on the back wall was a large abstract painting, part of the décor of the Lopez and Martinez homes. In the Lopez house, it was a green and tan swash on a white background, but in the Martinez’s place, it changed under a lighting shift to a kind of taupe-on-taupe canvas—the green field at the bottom having completely changed color.)

The acting, under Castañeda’s direction, was equally fine. Guevara’s work was mostly vocal, and though Sonia’s monologues themselves don’t seem to add much to the dramatic content of the play, the actress delivered them with a combination of directness and openness, convincingly sliding past the artificiality of some of the poetic prose. The dads, who were written in a pretty predictable and chichéd way, were smoothly and strongly portrayed by Narciso and Cañez (who has a fantastic baritone voice that resonates sonorously). The best work, probably not surprisingly, came from the two teen girls as embodied by Romero and Zilles. Neither actress is actually still a teenager, but they sure must remember what that age was like. (Question: Do teen girls really call each other “Dude” at the start of every sentence? I’ve copped to being a geezer before, so maybe I’ve just missed it, but has ‘dude’ become a genderless word now that refers equally to people of either sex? Oh, well!) While I got the feeling that Coppel had heaped on too much “youthspeak” to make her point, Romero and Zilles went a great distance to making me believe these kids really talked that way all the time. Their body language always seemed like 16-year-olds—sometimes the hardest thing for adults playing kids to pull off. For everyone, but especially for the two young actresses, I just wish the script had been more worthy of their work than it was.

One additional thought on the acting: the program lists a dialect coach, Doug Paulson, which surprised me a little. Watching the show, I just assumed the actors were all using a speech pattern that they knew from growing up Latino in America. Maybe Paulson’s task was to keep everyone on the same track—the play is set in L.A., and I assume there’s a distinctive southern California Chicano accent that’s different from, say, a Miami Cuban dialect or Nuyorican English. But if the cast had to be “coached” to sound authentically Latino, they and Paulson did a terrific job there. I have a pretty good ear, even if I don’t know every accent spoken on this continent, and all five of the actors in Chimichangas sounded a hundred per cent authentic to me. (I made a remark in my report on the Signature Theater’s revival of My Children! My Africa!—11 June on ROT—about the wobbly accents. This cast never wavered or went overboard—which is why I thought it was just an organic speech pattern.)

The press that I read was pretty uniform—and pretty much in line with what I’ve outlined here. In the Times, Zinoman complained of Coppel’s “rigid comic architecture” and called Chimichangas “energetic” but “overstuffed.” He equated the playwright’s two-character scenes with “very good sketch work” but added that her “slangy dialogue is overwritten,” concluding that the play ends up as “the kind of work that theater critics once compared to television.” Joe Dziemianowicz said in the Daily News that Coppel’s plot is replete with “off-putting rumbles,” the fallout of which was “vague” as the playwright “skates across complex issues . . . in a schizo style.” In the Village Voice, Tom Sellar summed up his assessment by complaining that Chimichangas and Zoloft “doesn't deliver the unsettling emotional impact it might,” and lamented that “[l]ike many domestic dramatists, Coppel prefers a soft landing, stressing hugs, and reconciliation.” Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman, dismissing the production in three short paragraphs, objected, “Even if Fernanda Coppel’s Mexican-American family drama did not literally begin with a fart, it would still be a bit of a stinker from the get-go. Blunt, clunky scenes alternate with self-conscious monologues; amid the earnest machinations of the plot, the characters barely scrounge a moment of truth.” Feldman concluded by asking: “This was greenlit by Atlantic Theater Company? Pass the Zoloft, please.”

In contrast, Variety’s Stasio declared that “on its own outrageous terms,” ATC’s “spiffy production” of Coppel’s “raunchy domestic comedy . . . hits every comic base and in a few (delicately directed) scenes between concerned fathers and their too-clever-by-half daughters manages to be quite moving.” And Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, though she warned us not to “expect anything groundbreaking” from Chimichangas and Zoloft, proclaimed that Coppel, “a promising new voice” with “a knack for snappy dialogue,” is a young playwright who “brings lively energy—and a couple of nice twists—to situations we’ve seen a million times before.” After noting, “It’s all somewhat standard family-dramedy fare,” the New Yorker, in a brief and uncredited review, concluded: “Still, despite some under- and overwriting, there is something refreshing about the young playwright Fernanda Coppel’s approach.”

Though Atlantic Stage 2 opened in 2003, Chimichangas was the first performance I’d seen there (though it’s only a few blocks directly west of my apartment and I walk past it frequently). The stage is a little cramped because of two large, square columns a few feet from the right and left sides of the stage (and often, I gather, incorporated into the set design). Similar columns appear in the auditorium, too, and seating on the far right or left rear of the house (there are only eight rows of seats) can be partially obscured. Diana likes aisle seats, so we were on the house-right edge of the auditorium and though my seat was fine (no action took place stage left of the column on stage), Diana had to move from my right to a vacant seat on the other side of me. For its purpose—the development of new, experimental work; workshops; and classes—Stage 2 seems an effective space for artists who need a place to work and see their scripts on their feet. ATC produces two plays in the black box theater each season.

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