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I'm sorry. Me assuming you speak Spanish wasn't like an insult. It was like a good thing. I do it because... I mean, it's actually what I'm most comfortable with. And it's a little like, "we're in this together" — Lucia

We're in what together?— Abel

I'm just saying that it's my comfort tongue, so whenever I get a chance to speak it, it's like taking off a tight belt... — Lucia.
Annie Dow and Eddie Martinez (Photo: James Leynse)
Having seen Donald Margolies's Collected Stories four times, I saw where Tanya Saracho's Fade was headed way before the last of its 19 brief scenes. Still you can't fault Ms. Saracho for choosing to use the familiar, crowd pleasing story of ambition overriding friendship for her own 2-hander now playing at Primary Stages' home at the Cherry Lane Theater. After all, Margolies's much produced 1998 Pulitzer Prize runner-up was itself a spin on the golden oldie 1950 movie All About Eve (Margulies shifted the scene from the theater to the book publishing world).

Like Collected Stories, Fade is based on actual events. Margulies's inspirational wellspring was the legal squabble between poet Stephen Spender and author Stephen Leavitt. (Spender accused Leavitt from poaching from his memoir and succeeded in getting the publishers to withdraw Leavitt's book). The Mexican-American Ms. Saracho's inspiration is even closer to home since it's based on what she has called her "token diversity hire" in Hollywood.

Fade's two characters are not connected by their work or life styles but by their geographic immigrant roots. Lucia (Annie Dow) has published one novel and considers being part of a TV serial's script team less as a great opportunity than a stopgap to make some money and go back to being a novelist. But though she is Mexican born, she comes from an affluent background which has helped her to transition into the aspiring American middle class. On the other hand, Abel (Eddie Martinez) is a third-generation American born ex-Marine. Yet, as part of the television studio's janitorial staff he's more a typical minority hire for lowly, go-nowhere work.

By pairing her play with two young people — Lucia's in her late 20s, Abel in his early 30's — who have little in common except their Mexican roots, the playwright turns the All About Eve business into serious sub-plot for her comedy. The focus on the same-but-different friendship allows Saracho to explore the differences within a large and diverse group of today's multi-cultural America; and also do a satiric send-up of the attitudes and work habits of those drawn like bees to honey to the privileged, high-pad world that creates mass entertainment.

From the moment we see Lucia trying to settle into the rather spartan office assigned to her, it's clear she's uncomfortably on edge. Despite the I-don't-care superiority she brings to her job as the new member of the TV show's creative team, she resents and is nervous about the more talk than writing set-up and her less than respectful treatment.

What's more, being a Chicagoan she feels alone and unsupported, not just in the job but in Los Angeles. No wonder someone to whom she can speak Spanish, the language that's always been her "comfort tongue" is just what she needs. So what difference that Abel enters her life pushing a vacuum cleaner and wearing a company uniform while she's smartly dressed and her working tool is a laptop?

Though Abel does indeed speak Spanish it's not his comfort language, at least not at work. Thus the Latino background establishes a common bond as the basis of their friendship, and for learning to understand the various things being "brown" can mean.

True to the play's title, Lucia's insecurities take a lot of venting to Abel for her tensions to fade away. But there's no fade out for the class and life style differences to make even a hint their growing rapport could be anything other than a momentary misstep. Despite punchy dialogue that effectively lands its laugh line, there's no avoiding the predictability of how Lucia's settling into the job and Abel's own confidences about his personal problems will lead to that sub-plot development — and the play's fadeout finale.

Under Joel Ruiz's taut direction, and with a strong assist from his design team, the many short scenes have enough physical and visual energy to save Fade from being too talky and static. Mariana Sanchez's office for Lucia subtly evokes the sense of a place that has seen writer after writer attempting to reconcile artistic hopes with the bottom line demands of Hollywood. With a strong assist from lighting designer Amid Drashanker the scene fluidly shifts its look for the finale. Thanks to costumer Carisa Kelly, Annie Dow manages to switch costumes in practically every scene.

Mr. Ruiz has guided Eddie Martinez to bring out Abel's likeability and vulnerability. Unfortunately, he's failed to keep Ms. Dow from being so consistently and exhaustingly shrill that she doesn't just turn unsympathetic gradually but comes off that way from the get-go.

Familiar as this narrative is, it's refreshing to have it play out for characters from a demographic usually seen in more stereotypical roles on stage and screen. For sure, they're not the Mexicans that our new president sees.

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Fade by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Jerry Ruiz
Cast: Annie Dow as Lucia and Eddie Martinez as Abel.
Sets: Mariana Sanchez
Costumes:Carisa Kelly
Lighting:Amith Chandrashaker
Sound:M.L. Dogg
Stage Manager:Alfredo Macias
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Primary Stages at Cherry Lane 38 Commerce Street
From 1/25/17; opening 2/08/17; closing 3/05/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 29th press preview

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