By Donna Herman
There’s an exciting new voice in the theater and it’s at The Atlantic Theater Company by way of Puerto Rico. Paola Lázaro, a young playwright with an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University, is the Atlantic’s 2016/2017 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence. She’s set Tell Hector I Love Him, her first play to be produced professionally, in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A stark but empathetic love letter to her native land, Ms. Lazaro writes with humor and directness about the lives of the people there.
Tell Hector I Love Him is centered around Mostro’s Bodega and the barrio outside the walls of Old San Juan, once home to slaves and slaughterhouses. The brilliant set by Clint Ramos captures the area simply and perfectly with graffitied stone walls creating a dungeon-like space. This is topped by a row of video screens across the entire stage, playing an endless rolling surf with bright, sunny skies.
The set’s juxtaposition of the dark world below and the bright one above, creates an ongoing visual tension that is mirrored in each character we meet. Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernandez), the stable, responsible, calm, strong bodega owner who seems so patient and kind to everyone who comes into the store, but is rigid and domineering with his wife. His wife, Samira (Selenis Leyva), beautiful, sweet, helpful in the store, kind to customers, obedient to her husband’s wishes, turns out to be deeply unhappy.
Palito (Sean Carvajal) and Jason (Victor Almanzar) are brothers. Jason is older, bigger, and stronger and looks out for Palito who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and is a little slow but has a quick temper. Jeison is a drug dealer and has taken Palito into the business and rescued him from a bad family situation where he was being beaten up either by their father or the boys on the bus. But neither of them seem to be able to make smart choices with the women in their lives. Palito is hanging out with one of the local girls, Tati (Analisa Velez), who is just using him for money, free drugs and pretty good sex. Jeison has fallen in love with a friend’s wife, who is just using him.
The local girls are in no great shape either. Tati and Malena (Dascha Polenco) are best friends. Malena is the local beauty. Everyone is in love with her but she won’t give any man the time of day. She was beaten so badly by her father that she left home at a young age and feels guilty for leaving her mother to bear the brunt of her father’s rage. And Tati has been traumatized by an ex-boyfriend who told her that her vagina looked like ground beef and now she’s convinced it’s ugly.
There’s a new young girl who comes around, Isis (Yadira Guevara-Prip), who is 16 or 17 and who is infatuated with Malena’s beauty. She is very direct and waits for Malena outside a club and tells Malena how beautiful she is and that she wants to hang out with her. She’s small and fearless, but it turns out she’s sick with some illness that she won’t deal with. Then there’s Hugo (Flaco Navaja), the coke-head who sees his dead father when he snorts, and El Mago (Luis Vega), the Magician who hangs around the square doing magic card tricks for tips. Charming and friendly, he’s tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide so he can join his dead wife.
Lazaro has drawn some wonderful characters, and her dialogue is extraordinary. She clearly knows this world intimately. She’s a smart and lucky young woman to work with the caliber of people that she has surrounded herself with. Selenis Leyva (“Orange Is the New Black”) who gave a nuanced, touching and believable performance as Samira. Newcomer Sean Carvajal was dynamic, funny, and heartbreaking as the challenged Palito. Victor Almanzar as Jeison has impeccable comic timing paired with a naturalistic style that made his portrayal of the love-sick stupidity of his character actually charming. The scene between Jeison and Mostro, played by the outstanding Juan Carlos Hernandez, an experienced actor and stand-up comedian in NY, where Jeison confesses his sins, was brilliant. Both funny and agonizing.
However, there’s an embarrassment of riches in the character heavy Tell Hector I Love Him that muddies the waters and leaves us in limbo. There are so many characters and stories that the focus gets lost, story lines don’t get resolved, and we’re left feeling confused about what the take-away is. We’ve spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the theater, but we’re not sure who and what it was about. I read an interview with Ms. Lazaro and Adam Szymkowicz in which her advice to new playwrights was to write and avoid editing. Just get everything out. “There will be time for editing later. Trust. Don’t fuck with the editor before you have to.” Ding Dong. Editor calling. It’s time.
Tell Hector I Love Him by Paola Lázaro, Directed by David Mendizábal.
WITH: Victor Almanzar (Jeison); Sean Carvajal (Palito); Alexander Flores (Toño); Yadira Guevara-Prip; Juan Carlos Hernández (Mostro); Selenis Leyva (Samira); Talene Monahon (La Gata); Flaco Navaja (Hugo); Dascha Polanco (Malena); Lisa Ramirez (Mami); Luis Vega (El Mago); Analisa Velez (Tati)
Scenic design by Clinto Ramos; costume design by Dede M. Ayite; lighting design by Eric Southern; sound design by Jesse Mandapat; fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House; dialect coach, Sol Crespo; casting by Caparelliotis Casting; press representative, Boneau/Bryan-Brown; production stage manager, Laura Smith; assistant stage manager, Lindsay Eberly; production manager, Ian Paul Guzzone; Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, Artistic Director; Jeffrey Lawson, Managing Director. At Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street through February 19th. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34237