Acts of Mercy: A Passion Play, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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Acts of Mercy: passion-play

Were you sad about her death --- Arabella (referring to Eladio's mother)
No I wasn't. I was sad about her life -- Eladio

Jose Febus as Nestor & Bryant Mason as Jaime in Acts of Mercy: a passion-play
Jose Febus as Nestor & Bryant Mason as Jaime in Acts of Mercy: a passion-play
Michael John Garcés's X-rated new play might not be such a muddle with less drawn out, no holds barred sex scenes. It would also have been an act of mercy if director Gia Forakis had persuaded the playwright to at least trim it to a less interminably long two hours (plus a long intermission to allow viewers to use the Rattlestick's single, backstage bathroom).

I'll admit that I was sorely tempted to join those audience members who made their escape at the end of the first act. But I'm an eternal optimist. Maybe things would improve and the crumbs of back story scattered through the cryptic dialogue in the first act would live up to its billing as a passion play in which the two sons of a dying father actually reach some sort of redemption.

Alas, Acts of Mercy continued on its perplexing and uninvolving path. The dialogue's cryptic rhythms are relentless that everything tends to sound like a playwriting class assignment to practice writing David Mamet-like interchanges in which most sentences are left unfinished because one character keeps stepping onto the other's words.

Unfortunately és's version of Mametspeak lacks Mamet's power, and is cryptic to a fault, giving us just crumbs of the back story of a Cuban family in which anger and resentment dominate happy, loving memories. As we are given too little information about the details contributing to the glum, unloving family situation, we also fail to get a sense of what made this dying man a powerful if divisive patriarch. The dramatic structure is so confusing, that unless they read their program before the play starts, the audiences could easily miss the fact that this all plays out on a single night, with the opening scene actually the culmination of everything that went before.

The play revolves around a familiar enough situation. Nestor, (José Febus) who has apparently done little to endear himself to his sons (each by a different wife), is dying. Eliadio (Andrés Munar), the younger son does his best to help him towards a peaceful end in his own home while Jaime (Bryant Mason), the older, remains fiercely angry and keeps his distance. As is so common, it's the absent son the father yearns for.

There are little evidences of any redemptive acts of mercy for Nestor or Jaime, which leaves it to Eladio to validate the title -- not just in caring for his father even though he'd rather be elsewhere, but in trying to persuade Jaime at least makes one last visit to his father. It's a good try for Jaime does show up at Nestor's bedside-- but don't count on any sort of heartwarming forgiveness.

The opening scene which is really the flashback leading into the sons' long day into night journey of trying to deal with their emotional baggage is quite promising. The music and the blue neon overhead light forming a cross, and the silent figure of a woman going through the ritual of preparing Nestor's body for burial, create the right sort of passion-play aura. That mood is lost in the erratic and far less riveting scenes that follow.

Several of these involve Arabella (Veronica Cruz) a sexual lightning rod for all the men in this family. She's supposed to be the girlfriend of TJ (Tommy Schrider playing what's probably Eladio's half brother via his mother's first marriage). However, she is currently also trying to relax Eladio and is also having an affair with Jaime. That affair brings out her masochistic needs. There are also hints that her sexual dysfunction dates back to a childhood experiences with Nestor. Cruz brings much fire to this role and it's not her fault that Arabella is no more a character you can understand and care about than the macho males.

Besides the adulterous and angry Jaime and the more laid-back TJ, there's also a borderline retard cousin. Ivan Quintanilla imbues the volatile character with every nervous tick in his actor's bag of trick. Eladio's second go-nowhere sexual encounter is with an inexperienced dancer at the topless bar where Eladio, TJ and Ricky go for a night out. While adding yet another emotionally bruised soul adds little to strengthen the plot, Jenny Maguire makes Kathleen the most worth watching and intriguing characters.

Director Gia Forakis has managed to stage the piece with minimal props, wisely relying on Peter West's intense lighting. If only she could have kept all those ratatat bursts of unfinished sentences from coming off as Mametspeak with barely a pause for adding nuance. The women, especially Maguire, fare better in finding pauses to impregnate with meaning.

The language and drawn out sex scenes (with full frontal nudity) call for a concluding caveat: This is a family story but hardly one to which to take the whole family. .

ACTS OF MERCY: passion-play
Playwright: Michael John Garcés
Directed by Gia Forakis
Cast: Veronica Cruz (Arabella), José Febus (Nestor), Jenny Maguire (Kathleen), Bryant Mason (Jaime), Andrés Munar (Eladio), Ivan Quintanilla (Ricky) and Tommy Schrider (TJ)
Set Design: Robin Vest
Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy
Lighting Design: Peter West
Sound Design: Daniel Baker
Original Music: Matthew Suttor & the Broken Chord Collective
Running time: 2 hours, plus 20-minute intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place (West of 7th Avenue between West 11th & Perry Streets) SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 2/08/06 to 3/19/05; opening 2/16/06.
Wednesday through Saturday evening at 8 PM and Sunday at 3:00PM.
Tickets: $37.50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/14/06 press performance
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