Virility Bites

Anyone who has seen Luis Santeiro's two prior plays in their world premieres at the Coconut Grove Playhouse -- Mixed Blessings (1989) and The Lady from Havana (1991) -- knows what to expect from his latest offering at the Playhouse, The Rooster and the Egg. Although Santeiro has won seven Emmy awards for his work on the classic children's TV show Sesame Street, he is best known in these parts for his groundbreaking achievements as writer and co-creator of the bilingual PBS series ¨Que Pasa, USA?, which portrayed the lives of fictional members of Miami's Cuban exile community. If you live here, you'll get Santeiro's jokes and commentaries; if you don't, for the most part you won't connect with his comedies.

Santeiro's plays for the stage and the small screen deal with first- and second-generation Cuban immigrants living in Dade County, coping with adjustments to American life, fighting to keep cultural icons safe from Anglo erosion, and speaking in sentences often composed of equal parts English and Spanish. These families are caught between cultures, clinging to a romantic past dancing under the moonlight on Varadero Beach, loathing Castro until the bitter end, and furiously trying to instill a love of their homeland and loyalty to their primary cause (Cuba libre) in their increasingly Yankee-sounding and Yankee-thinking children.

Santeiro always has used situation comedy to flesh out these basic conflicts; in fact, perhaps the most glib (and succinct) way to describe him is as the Latin Neil Simon.

Although Santeiro's characters are frequently stereotypes, they're also accurately drawn. His males are dedicated to the code of machismo but secretly terrified of life. His women are outwardly defiant but still dominated by their husbands. And the children are trying to break free from their parents and the influence of a country most of them never have seen. More than most immigrant populations, the Cuban exilios refuse to let go of the past and move on, while many of their children are weary of their parents' obsessive need for revenge and restitution, and their slavish devotion to tradition.

Without this basic understanding some people might consider The Rooster and the Egg little more than a cute sit-com, with its predictable twists and implausible resolution. But if you get the cultural references, it becomes both highly amusing and challenging, its flaws easily overshadowed by its charm and intelligence. (Perhaps in the future, when the Cuban-American experience is better understood by the rest of this country, Santeiro will be more revered for his theatrical contributions. If and when he is, The Rooster and the Egg certainly will be considered one of his finer works.)

Unlike the flat-out silliness and farcical nature of Mixed Blessings and The Lady from Havana, The Rooster and the Egg deals with a more serious theme: the inability of the Latin male to blend into an increasingly feminist-slanted society. Buried up to his neck in midlife crisis, Juancho Morales is unable to satisfy the sexual needs of Elsa, his beautiful, slightly younger wife. His prostate is enlarged, and the surgery required to rectify the condition may render him impotent. His adolescent son, Johnny, cleans house and plants flowers, showing a definite predilection -- at least in Juancho's eyes -- for the effeminate aspects of life. Meanwhile, Juancho's mother, Belen, has turned into an elderly nymphomaniac, baring her breasts in public at the slightest provocation and accepting amphetamines from a sleazy pharmacist in exchange for sex. Worst of all perhaps, Juancho's daughter, Nati, has married a sensitive, folksinging Anglo named Phil, who can't seem to muster enough sperm to father a grandchild for Juancho.

At the start of the play, Juancho broods and bellows at anyone within earshot. He feels his control over life is slipping away, along with his testosterone level. But things are about to get worse. Without his knowledge, the frustrated Elsa is carrying Nati and Phil's child in her womb; in effect, she has become a surrogate for her own daughter. As Juancho doesn't approve of women even speaking about sex, such an advanced, high-tech, New World procedure embodies his worst nightmare, marking the total collapse of his tradition-laden, male-dominated world.

The beauty of the play lies in its ability to deal simultaneously with cross-generational conflicts, Cuban-American angst, and emerging feminism, all in a deceptively lighthearted manner. When Belen tells Elsa that Juancho's adulterous father is responsible for his son's narrow-minded attitudes toward women, that men hand down this kind of abusive behavior from father to son, a vital point is being made. And when wimpy Phil confronts his father-in-law and tells Juancho that he is actually just a bully and not a real man, the monologue has great dramatic weight and import. This is the first time Santeiro has portrayed the American male as something other than an impotent fool; through Phil's potent chastisement, Santeiro acknowledges that an equal relationship between the sexes is neither weak nor stupid, but fundamentally correct.

Although Santeiro throws in an occasional "mi hija" or "abuela" for flavor, it's fitting that these characters speak mostly in English. He wants to emphasize that his play's premise could apply to any culture, not just the Latin one. (I haven't noticed Japanese, Nepalese, or Saudi men campaigning for women's rights lately.) Santeiro has charted the progress of the Miami exilios by further Anglicizing their dialogue with each new piece he writes. For example, in ¨Que Pasa, USA?, a great deal of Spanish was spoken, while in The Rooster and the Egg, the refugees appear to feel more comfortable with their second language. Here, young Johnny speaks with an accent as American as Bart Simpson's.

Director Arthur Storch does an adequate job guiding a play that virtually stages itself, while James Tilton's set is marvelously accurate. If you've walked into any prosperous Cuban household in Kendall, you instantly will recognize this set's decor.

As Juancho, Abraham Alvarez performs realistically and admirably as a man absorbed by his own selfish needs and obsessed with public displays of masculinity. At the same time Alvarez manages to find the heart within Juancho, the love that saves him in the end. I am happy to report that two locally trained actresses play the principal female roles, and perform them very well. As the beleaguered Elsa, Loli Rainey is lovely and lovable, combining the maternal, nurturing instincts and intelligent grace of a woman such as the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Elsa is in no way a nouveau riche bimbo; Rainey makes her admirable, strong, and feminine at the same time.

Evelyn Perez takes a different approach to Nati, the total Nineties woman, coming off slightly masculine and a bit brash A but it's the perfect choice. Her corporate crispness and bottom-line mentality work beautifully against her mother's delicacy; together, mother and daughter unveil the many facets of the new, more independent female. Bjo/rn Johnson (Phil) and Frank Galgano (Johnny) do some fine acting in supporting roles. Only Lillian Hurst, as Belen, overemotes, turning a comic character into an often annoying caricature.

If I wanted to get picky, I would find greater fault with Santeiro's sloppy ending. Having written himself into a corner, he causes Juancho to have a complete change of heart without sufficient motivation. But there are too many laughs and delightful scenes in The Rooster and the Egg to condemn its contrived last five minutes. For Miami's Anglos, the play will allow them to laugh out loud at Latin idiosyncrasies without fear of reproach. For Latins, the play's theme may resonate after the laughter subsides, and result in contemplation and conversation. Even if Santeiro speaks only to Miamians in general and local Cuban Americans in particular, his voice is creative, important, and entertaining.


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