Journalists and movie stars circle each other warily, in an uneasy dance born of need and skepticism. On one level, they are interdependent: Stars rely on journalists to promote them, while journalists use celebrity escapades as story fodder. On another level, they never know how much to trust one another: Stars traffic in illusions they hope the public will buy, while journalists compromise the power of those illusions by probing for the reality behind them.
In the world premiere of Mario Diament's Lost Tango, a magazine writer and a reclusive film diva engage in a darkly comic exaggeration of this classic power play, with a tango, the Argentine dance that features quick twists and turns, serving as a metaphor for their encounter. Valeria Durand (Ellen Simmons), a beloved heroine of Argentine melodramas, dropped out of the movies at the height of her career without explanation and has been living in virtual seclusion in a Buenos Aires hotel for 30 years. Impressed for the first time in decades by a journalist's letter, she grants an exclusive interview to Diego Goldstein (David M. Kwiat), a contributor to a local publication. Soon after Goldstein arrives at Durand's suite, the sparring begins, with the star grilling the writer as rigorously as he interrogates her. The characters both want something, but damned if they are going to admit it outright. Besides, their motives change during the course of two acts as they goad, coax, and manipulate; disclose long-buried secrets; expose desires and lies; and play macabre games.
Enjoying a handsome production at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in Hollywood, Lost Tango provides one of those see-saw evenings that teeter on the cusp of being novel before falling back into the realm of the prosaic. With more than a nod to Billy Wilder's film noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and Anthony Shaffer's mind-bending stage and movie thriller Sleuth, Diament's South Florida debut proves both ambitious and predictable, intriguing and contrived. It doesn't help that Joseph Adler's direction, though entertaining, neglects to mine the ironic humor buried in the script. While Simmons on occasion brings wit and bite to her role as the self-obsessed Durand, she draws on a limited repertoire of gestures in her evocation of the larger-than-life drama queen. She also seems to struggle to remember her lines. Ultimately, it is Kwiat's nuanced comic performance as the down-at-the-heels writer desperate for a scoop that carries the evening beyond typical into memorable. Fluctuating between klutzy nerd, ingenuous detective, besotted fan, and calculating reporter, Kwiat's portrayal keeps us guessing about Goldstein's motives until the last beat of the play.
In fashioning the character of a reporter, Argentine-born playwright Diament draws on professional experience: He has doubled as a journalist while writing for the stage. Plays written in the Seventies and Eighties, including the award-winning Houseguest and Story of a Kidnapping, were produced throughout South America and in New York, Los Angeles, Israel, and Spain. Diament worked for years on famed newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman's La Opinion in Buenos Aires, traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, and wrote a column for El Nuevo Herald. He runs the master's program in Spanish-language journalism at Florida International University.
Not surprisingly, the issues Diament raises about journalistic ethics and invasions of privacy are among the most compelling in Lost Tango. He also briefly touches on the character's experience with racism as an actress in Hollywood, where as a Hispanic woman the only roles she was offered were "Indians, Mexicans, peasants, and gypsies" who were "whipped, raped, shot, or burned at the stake." (That story is worth a play in itself.) Rather than examining ethics or racism in depth, however, he glosses over them on his way to other potentially rich subjects (including the tensions between fact and fantasy, truth and lies, and reality and memory) that unfortunately he never satisfactorily probes either.
Opening on Labor Day weekend, Lost Tango officially closed the 1995-96 South Florida theater season, rendering it the last production eligible to be nominated for this year's Carbonell Awards. The entire season was marked by an unusual number of world premieres, many of which were written by South Florida dramatists. Fittingly, the year ended with an original work by an area playwright. Although less trenchant than it might have been, Lost Tango introduces a local voice interested in using drama as a vehicle for exploring ideas. With any luck, next time Diament will bring a more penetrating sensibility to such explorations.
From 1970 through 1983, Mario Diament wrote five plays with an energy he now finds astounding. "I remember the year 1977," he recalls in a recent telephone interview. "I was managing editor of La Opinion in Buenos Aires. I wrote a play, Houseguest. I wrote a movie. I wrote a series of plays for television. When I think back on that year now I say, 'How did I do it?'"
On closer inspection, he attributes his productivity to an urgency in the air in Argentina during that time that fueled his need to create. In 1976 the country underwent a military coup that imposed the infamous junta responsible for seven years of citizen disappearances, torture, and murder. Diament, now 54, also notes that his output "had to do with being at an age where you can sleep three hours a night and still keep working."
In contrast, an eleven-year gap stretches between 1983's Equinoccio (Equinox) and 1994's Interviu (Interview), a play written in Spanish and produced in Buenos Aires, and upon which 1996's English-language Lost Tango is based. Journalism, it seemed, had won out.
"First, I was a foreign correspondent traveling a lot, which makes it very hard to write a play," Diament observes. "When you live in many places it's difficult to find time to reflect, which is what dramatic writing requires."
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Executive editorship at a magazine and then a newspaper followed. The fourteen- to sixteen-hour days filled with crises were so absorbing they precluded any time for literary pursuits. Then in 1993 Florida International University beckoned with an academic position.
"The moment I quit the newspaper, I sat down and wrote Interviu," Diament remembers. "It was fantastic. There was such a need in me to do that." It was as if the work was waiting to leap to the page after years of percolating in his mind.
Despite the demands of journalism that leave little time for composing plays, Diament maintains that the two disciplines can nourish each other. "I'm always thinking about dramatic situations and things that would work wonderfully on the stage," he explains. "I've used my sense of reality from journalism to develop plays that I consider political. And I use the sense of craziness of the theater and the weird look at reality that theater offers to do interesting journalism."
Lost Tango. Written by Mario Diament; directed by Joseph Adler; with Ellen Simmons and David M. Kwiat. Through September 22. For information call 954-929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.