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A CurtainUp Review

All stereotypes turn out to be true. This is a horrifying thing about life. All those things you fought against as a youth: you begin to realize they're stereotypes because they're true. --- David Cronenberg

 Rick Najera, <i>Latinologues</i> creator, writer and performer
Rick Najera, Latinologues creator, writer and performer (Photo: Jaon Marcus)
Latinologues opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre after several engagements in other cities. Twelve comic sketches, mostly monologues delivered by a cast of four, depict the most obvious Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican stereotypes. The occasional serious commentary on exploitation, at times moving, seems not only out of context but undermined by comedy that's as stale as last week's tortillas.

Trading on the long standing commercial successes of ethnic humor, writer and performer Rick Najera, (of Mad TV and In Living Color), has created cardboard thin characters. That's not the way ethnic humor has to be. As John Leguizamo and Jackie Mason have shown us, ethnic humor (whether targeting themselves, family members, friends or strangers) can be presented with authenticity, irony, affection, and above all, individuality.

Latinlogues presents stock images -- a Mexican being deported, a Dominican mopping, a Puerto Rican woman who gets herself pregnant while one from Cuba solicits. If they have names, it hardly matters. The show being promoted as an "award winning comedy about life in America," focuses on the poor and disenfranchised to rouse sympathy but the decidedly ghetto humor (which can shock and elicit giddy laughter) is a bid for cheap thrills. Consequently, the audience's interest gradually (and audibly) fades.

A Mexican TV favorite, Eugenio Derbez, uses voices and sight gags reminiscent of Jerry Lewis. But his talents are wasted on a portrayal of a Mexican who decides to have himself deported to get back home, a colorless sidekick to a psychopathic drug lord (played by Rick Najera), and an overwrought (and hammed up) mother whose son declares himself a vampire in preference to being gay.

Rick Najera's Buford, a sadistic border cop who enjoys putting the scare in wetbacks even though he's of Latino heritage himself, is in keeping with his theme of Latinos who get ahead being unsympathetic to their people. In addition to the drug lord Najera also creates a scathing portrayal of the Latino professional, "the Latino nobody ever talks about" -- specifically, a gay Hollywood producer who just recently realized he was Latino. As an adolescent Elian Gonzalez with a doll-like squal, Najera extends a thematic riff on the Castro dictatorship.

Shirley Rumierk, a bright young talent from Manhattan, plays a pregnant Puerto Rican woman who claims she's still a virgin, but her angelic demeanor is contrasted with filthy language and phony romanticism. As in her gun toting portrayal of the Queen of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Rumierk captures all the hostility of a Rosy Perez persona, but none of the heart. She has a fine moment in her touching role as a Cuban prostitute who while sleeping with tourists imagines she's temporarily living somewhere other than Cuba.

Rene Lavan, a young, energetic television and movie actor (of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) plays a passionate busboy who goes home with his rich, blonde Anglo customer. Naturally, she rejects him in the morning because he's just a busboy. His defiant self-affirmation about being more than just a busboy with a sex drive lacks the personal detail to be persuasive. He is more moving in the more serious monologue by a janitor who lost his wife in the World Trade Center -- one of the illegal aliens lost on 9/11 whose deaths, as he sadly notes, were largely ignored. Lavan also plays the absurd and unlikable father of Elian Gonzales in yet another dig at the Castro regime.

As if smacking the same piņata again and again, the characters repeatedly remind us that Dominicans love baseball, Cubans exaggerate, and Puerto Ricans sacrifice chickens. As if gradually numbed by each repeated joke, the audience in attendance responded less and less. I wish director Cheech Marin had found a way to boost this show's entertainment value with some wonderful Latino music (or live musicians), or colorful sets but alas, no. The production does have the one noticeable and thoughtful production value in Kevin Adams's lighting, fortunately employed frequently and to good dramatic effect. There are also some simple background projections relevant to each sketch.

The final segment tries to weave together a few previously encountered characters, but this also is too slapstick and forced. Najera concludes the ninety minutes with a bid for ticket sales: "If you're Latino tell your cousins; if you're an Anglo, tell your employees." I would add to this variation on the exploitation theme: "If your cousins or employees like soggy tortilla chips dipped into bland salsa, tell them to go to the Helen Hayes before Latinologues hits the road again."

Created and Written by Rick Najera
Directed by Cheech Marin

Cast: Shirley Rumierk, Rick Najera, Eugenio Derbez, Rene Lavan
Costume Design: Santiago
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: T. Richard Fitzgerald
Video Design: Dennis Diamond
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th St., 212-239-6200
From 9/13/05 to 12/04/05; opening 10/23/05.
Tuesday-Friday evenings at 8 PM, Saturdays at 5 and 9 PM and Sundays at 3 and 7 PM.
Tickets: $40 and $60
Reviewed by Eric Beckson based on October 12th performance
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