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A CurtainUp Review

by Les Gutman

The title of Edwin Sanchez's new play, Clean, is in the nature of a reverse warning. Hearing what the play is about -- a drag queen who becomes involved with a married woman, a man who marries three sisters (one at a time!) and love between a priest and a little boy -- it doesn't take a dirty mind to assume we are in for something salacious. While Sanchez may not be out to disappoint us, his play is not salacious.

Clean purports to be about impossible love. As it turns out, this too it is not. I might be inclined to call it Don Quixote Meets Saint Jude and Discovers He's Gay.

Attention is focused on a Puerto Rican family living in the Bronx. We first meet Gustavito, age 7, but played by a young adult, Victor Anthony. (By the end of the play, Gustavito has become 15 year old Gustavo.) Although this casting might seem preposterous, it is actually an effective choice. The slim but not slight Anthony is believable and endearing throughout.

Gustavito is the son of Kiko, (Victor Argo), an autocratic man of few words but with a big thirst for liquor, and his second wife Esperanza who left the family without explanation long before we arrive. His first wife Consueolo died some time ago and his current wife Mercy, (Paula Pizzi) is the middle sister of wives one and two.The final entry on the family tree is Junior, (Nelson Vasquez), the son of Consuelo and Kiko, and five years older than Gustavito.

Pizzi plays a sensitive, enigmatic Mercy who has no love for Kiko and is in fact a virgin! Vasquez renders Junior with near-perfect Bronx tough teen bluster but hints of vulnerability. Playwright Sanchez has effectively utilized this character to provide much of the play's context, as well as a lot of its punctuation.

The household is not one in which love is a plentiful commodity. "God invented love to punish people," Kiko informs his family. Junior thinks "if you love someone, they belong to you." With this ammunition, Gustavito develops a crush on the parish priest and Mercy becomes very friendly with a drag queen named Norry, (Ron Butler), for whom she is sewing a wedding dress. Junior can't figure out why the neighbor girl he loves and thus thinks he owns won't give him the time of day and, oh yes, Mercy keeps Kiko's sexual advances at bay with a hammer.

All of this seems to build a foundation for something meaningful on the subject of impossible love. Confronted with the young boy's feelings the priest, (Rod McLachlan), struggles to suppress or at least control any reciprocal feelings he has. He is part-pastor, part-father, part-friend and, well maybe, something more. Gustavito prays a lot while the priest flexes his anxieties over impossible love as well as the oxymoron potential in the expression, "gay Catholic".

This interaction is artfully written, especially in light of the raw edge it explores. Rod McLachlan's priest, known only as Father, sustains the delicate nuances. The spiritual reconciliations of the religious are not trivialized; the examination of communicating through prayer sheds fresh light on the meaning of excommunication.

In contrast, Norry's character is not as carefully drawn. This could be due to Ron Butler's failure to illuminate it. He seems more like a man playing the part of a drag queen than someone for whom the amalgam of campy humor, street smarts and spontaneity comes naturally. This creates great difficulty when, in the second act, Norry struggles to become Norberto so he can love Mercy. Butler seems relieved to be back in men's clothing. It is also unfortunate because Norry is supposed to be everyone's mentor, but isn't invested with enough conviction to carry it off. Halfway through the first act, Norry offers a key to the second act: "Find out what his fantasies are. Find the ones he doesn't even know about himself."

As the first act concludes, the elegy on impossible love starts to take on Cinderella-like qualities and the lush tapestry Sanchez has woven begins to unravel. We are hit with a barrage of fantasies, as well as a few realities. The play ends in true fairy tale fashion. Clean explores love by turning it upside down and shaking it. If we can understand what love is when it shows up where it is not welcome, traditional love stories will be a piece of cake. It makes for a rich and original story, if not an especially easy one.

One final note: the staging seems unnecessarily clunky and diverting. Sense of place is in more than one scene elusive, a problem exacerbated by the very short fade ins and fade outs often used . Scenes end before you can figure out what they are about. A notable exception to this complaint, and one that deserves special mention, is Rick Sordelet's handling of the fighting. (Don't worry, it is not a large part of the action.)

It should be added that the intimate size of the Atlantic Theatre is perfectly suited to bring this finely crafted work into focus.

by Edwin Sanchez
With Victor Anthony, Paula Pizzi, Victor Argo,
Rod McLachlan, Nelson Vasquez and Ron Butler
Directed by Neil Pepe
Atlantic Theatre, 336 W. 20th St. (212)239-6200
5/30/97-7/07/97* (opening 6/09/97)
*Closing moved up to 6/29 --then given a reprieve until the original 7/07 closing date

A Note About the Atlantic Theatre Company

The company is an acting ensemble which grew out of a series of workshops taught by David Mamet and William H. Macy's from 1983 to 1985. The innovative company has an attractively priced, audience-building membership plan and not only produces new plays but runs a successful professional school.

Neil Pepe, the artistic director also directs and acts. Not surprisingly, since it's located in a renovated church in Chelsea, the company sees itself a "the church of practical aesthetics.

This season has been a particularly active one. Even the imperfect plays are always worth seeing and some that CurtainUp has seen and reviwed besides the one on this page are Minutes from the Blue Route and The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite. Seen and admired last year, before the curtain went up on CurtainUp, were Mamet's Edmond and J.B. Priestley's Dangerous Corners, directed and adapted by Mamet

©Copyright 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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