"Curtain"s and Walls
San Diego REP’s world premiere play pits the privileged against the immigrant poor in a lightweight look at illegal immigration
By Donnie Matsuda
There’s a wall that features prominently in the second half of Tortilla Curtain, the world premiere play by Matthew Spangler currently being staged as the sixth and final production of San Diego REP’s 36th season. It’s a wall that the affluent hilltop communities of Topanga Canyon, which includes nature writer and staunch environmentalist Delaney Mossbacher and his real estate mogul wife, want erected around their glorious mansions to keep their lives protected from “the outsiders” – whether they be vicious dog-eating coyotes or rabble-rousing illegal immigrants from Mexico.
And it’s an interesting metaphor, that wall, in that it speaks to our natural human instinct to build up barriers around us in an attempt to more clearly define an “us” vs. “them.” In fact, the title of Spangler’s play refers to one of the most hotly debated and politically charged walls that exist in our country today: the U.S./Mexico border. But, while this polished and peculiar play, a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays award, attempts to tackle some heavy-hitting and socially relevant themes, it ends up taking a mostly lightweight and shallow stab at this potentially impactful issue.
The play’s premise starts out interestingly enough, with Delaney’s world colliding head on with that of undocumented immigrant Cándido Rincón on the narrow, windy roads of Topanga Canyon. As Delaney’s white Lexus plows into Cándido himself and leaves him badly injured (but unable to seek medical attention for fear of being deported), the two men’s lives are forever altered as we watch the fallout from this fateful accident unfold in two very different households: the upper-middle class mansion of Delaney and his breadwinner wife Kyra at Arroyo Blanco (a gated community where all the houses have immaculate orange tile roofs and are painted in different shades of white) and the dark ravine at the bottom of the canyon where Cándido and his wife América have set up a makeshift abode while they desperately search for work scrubbing statues and laying bricks. It’s a stark contrast as we shift back and forth between the day-to-day lives of these two distinct couples, but beyond the interesting comparison of two distinctly different American ways of life, it’s hard to figure out exactly what playwright Spangler (who adapted his play from the best-selling novel by T.C. Boyle) is trying to say with this oddly playful piece of work.
Perhaps part of the problem here is that the play doesn’t really know when to take itself seriously and when to tastefully slip into satire. Instead, it ends up being a mash-up of a number of things both humorous and heartbreaking, as the playwright has thrown in just about everything (including the kitchen sink). From waxing poetic about chasing the ever-elusive American Dream, to a fully choreographed music video dance number a la Jennifer Lopez, to highly stylized rape and fight sequences, to a Thanksgiving dinner that causes the entire canyon to go up in flames, this play unabashedly takes the meaning of “randomness” to a whole new level. And just like the fantastical and far-fetched American dream that Cándido chases, Tortilla Curtain hovers about without a clear direction, teasing and taunting with its glimmers of hope and flashes of brilliance.
Despite lacking a cohesive core, San Diego REP’s production boasts some incredibly fine performances from its first-rate cast. Mike Sears is ideal as the clean-cut, tree-hugging intellectual Delaney and Kinan Valdez is every bit his equal as the tireless and passionate Mexican immigrant Cándido. These two men bring their own idiosyncrasies to their roles and manage to carve out some finely nuanced characters that are both captivating and compelling. Vivia Font is truly a vision as beautiful América and she acts with an earnestness that is at times breathtaking and at times exhilarating. And in the supporting role of Kyra, Lisel Gorell-Getz is appropriately curt and clueless as the successful real estate broker with nothing but money on her mind.
The ensemble cast is also strong and they tackle their many cameo roles with gravitas and gusto. They include Miles Gaston Villanueva as José Navidad, David Meyers as Jack Jardine Sr., and Jeremy Kahn as Jack Jardine Jr.
San Diego REP’s artistic director Sam Woodhouse gives his spry staging a playful feel that works well with the haphazard nature of the piece. It’s definitely a tall order, but Woodhouse works wonders wrangling all the disparate elements of this quirky play into a cohesive and presentable whole. And his sprawling vision goes hand in hand with Ericka Moore’s blazing choreography and James Newcomb’s feisty fight sequences. Together, their efforts are greatly aided by a stellar design team, which includes an earthy and textured canyon-side set by Ian Wallace, some 1990’s era-appropriate costumes by Valerie Henderson, and some contemporary musical interludes composed by Bruno Louchouarn.
Overall, if the goal of Tortilla Curtain is to serve as an earth-shattering, though-provoking piece of theatre, it falls short of the mark. However, if its goal is to serve as a stylized period piece that seeks to bring the issue of illegal immigration to the forefront of our collective consciousness as Americans, then it definitely does that.
And, perhaps by doing so, we can all examine the walls we’ve built up around ourselves and see if one day we can finally learn enough to break free.
Things to know before you go: Tortilla Curtain presented by San Diego REP plays on the Lyceum Stage at Lyceum Theatre through April 8, 2012. Running time is 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm; performances are also scheduled on selected Saturdays at 2pm and selected Sundays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays at 7pm. Ticket prices are $32-$51 with discounts available for groups, seniors, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.