There have been plenty of plays and films about boxing, but the intense mano-a-mano conflict of the sport makes it an enduring subject for drama. In the tradition of Golden Boy and Rocky comes the New Theatre's latest project, Barrio Hollywood, a world premiere with considerable potential: it's not only a play about boxing, it's also about Mexican-American culture, family loyalty, and cross-cultural romance. To this add some imaginative staging by the New's Rafael de Acha, and evocative, colorful production design, and all signs point towards superior stagecraft. Yet, while each of these assets is on display in this world premiere, the sum of the parts doesn't add up to much impact: This boxing play looks good but doesn't land many punches.
Barrio Hollywood tracks the Moreno family, who are struggling to make ends meet in a run-down Tucson neighborhood after the family's hard-drinking patriarch takes off with another woman. Daughter Graciela (Beatriz Montañez) is a thirtysomething dance teacher, whose passion for Mexican folklorico dancing is matched only by her love for her boxer brother, Alex (Euriamis Losada), and her devoutly religious mother, Ama (Marta Velasco). But family stability is upset when Alex is knocked cold during a prize fight in Mexico, leaving him in a deep coma. Amidst this crisis, Graciela meets, then falls in love with, Alex's Anglo doctor, Michael (John Baldwin), a sudden romantic surprise that sets Graciela reeling and Ama fuming. but the love affair gets sidelined when Alex suddenly dies and the police open a murder investigation.
Despite this buildup, the production fails to deliver a knock-out punch. Elaine Romero's script features poetic, colorful language and a warm, humanistic sensibility, but lacks strong drama; the show is lovely, but pretty tame. The first act begins with Alex's coma, then focuses on Graciela and Ama trying to cope while Graciela begins her relationship with awkward but likable Michael. This romance has its charm, but it's unremarkable, and the characters remain underwritten. The second act, which centers on the murder whodunit, is sketchier still and relies on a rather disturbing concept: euthanasia as a means to resolve family turmoil. This bombshell of an idea merits dramatic depiction, but here it's not so much examined as dispensed with; characters quickly accept it without much ado. Romero, a veteran playwright whose work has been featured at prominent theaters from San Diego to New York, certainly has the production experience and verbal felicity to turn out first-rate work. But Barrio Hollywood feels like a script in the workshop stage -- promising, appealing, but still taking shape. Its scenes have substance; its language is evocative and De Acha's production fully exploits its sensual aspects, from the sound design by Ozzie Quintana to a brief sequence when Graciela slips out of her dance costume and slides nude into Michael's bed. But the script has the misfortune of being produced by a theatre that has been offering a series of superior plays; despite its assets, this one just looks weak by contrast.
The production tends to compensate for narrative weaknesses. Rather than rely exclusively on the play's scene structure, De Acha uses expressionistic staging and choreography (courtesy of Ricky J. Martinez) to add mystery and theatricality. Michael McKeever's set features votive candles flickering against huge religious paintings and three sliding upstage screens, and it is warmly lit by Pedro A. Remirez. The acting ensemble helps add humor and heart. Beatriz Montañez, in an appealing professional debut, endows Graciela with empathy and texture; though some of the romantic sequences tend toward rather generic dialogue, Montañez's physicality and nonverbal subtext help keep them alive.
John Baldwin's geeky Michael offers welcome comic relief and his scenes with Montañez are charming. At one point, after a lover's quarrel, Baldwin's Michael stumbles along trying to make up while Montañez wavers between anger and laughter -- she can't help being charmed by this gringuito. Montañez also does well working with Losada as nice guy Alex; there's a relaxed sibling affection that helps justify Graciela's fierce protectiveness. As the play's most conflicted, and thus most interesting, character Ama, Marta Velasco seems rather uneven, veering from some externalized histrionics in the first act to some detailed character work in the second: a jail scene with Graciela is especially effective as Ama begins to fall apart. Here Velasco's performance and Romero's writing conjure a frightening, powerful sequence that points out what this play could become with more development.
Barrio Hollywood is the first of a series of challenging new plays the New has scheduled this season. These mainstage productions are complemented by an ambitious workshop series of staged readings of plays in progress. Through both programs, the New continues to refine its mandate as an important source of new dramatic works.
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