Lies & misdemeanors: ‘Latina’ and ‘The Last Five Years’

Reviews: Milagro's wild 'Learn To Be Latina' and Center Stage's Jason Robert Brown musical measure the depravity of mendacity

Like politics, the theater relies on lies.

 It’s your lucky day, Macbeth. Grab the ring!

 My name? It’s, um, Ernest.

 Have you ever heard of the word mendacity?

 Honest, Jamie and Edmund, I’m totally off the morphine.

 I’m pretty sure Desdemona gave your handkerchief to Cassio.

Without lies, where’s the conflict? Without conflict, where’s the drama – or the comedy?

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Mark Twain famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli on the three degrees of falsehood, although no one’s been able to nail down whether Disraeli ever actually said it or not, suggesting the distinct possibility that Twain lied about lying, or at least misspoke the truth. Wheels within wheels, and that’s how stories get spun.

Two shows new to Portland stages – Enrique Urueta’s comedy Learn To Be Latina, at Milagro Theatre, and Jason Robert Brown’s two-person musical The Last Five Years, at Portland Center Stage – get their knickers in a twist over some great big whoppers. One wallows in the lie of the vow of eternal love, keeping things close and personal. The other mucks around in the mendacity of marketing, sprawling satirically all over the cultural map. Let’s sprawl first.

 *

 It’s not easy being brown. Especially if you’re the wrong kind of brown. But then, as the young singer Hanán discovers in Urueta’s satirical comedy Learn To Be Latina, you can always lie about it. Well, why not? Doesn’t everyone? 

Accuardi (foreground) is stunned by the three-ring circus of FAD. Russell J. Young Photography

Accuardi (foreground) is stunned by the three-ring circus of FAD. Russell J. Young Photography

Latina is a sendup with sharp teeth, a brash comic-book comedy that veers wildly from ethnic stereotyping to Faustian bargaining to corporate toadyism to sexual politics. It’s a more-is-more comedy, a raunchy ride into excess, tossing in everything but the kitchen cinquo de Mayo – which, come to think of it, makes a guest appearance, too.

But as wild and woolly as the story gets, the comedy races atop a swift and serious undercurrent: a culture hung up on rigid views of race and sex is living a lie, and there will be consequences. Urueta’s plots and subplots can be dizzying, but they boil down to this: Hanán, an extremely Americanized aspiring singer, is about to get the Miley Cyrus/Taylor Swift/Adele star-maker treatment when the image-makers at pop-music factory FAD (it stands for Funky Artist Development, Inc.) discover her family background is Lebanese. And post-9/11, a pop star from the Middle East is about as sellable as a lucky rabbit’s foot at a PETA convention. Is Hanán out of luck and out on the streets, or can she – learn to be Latina? Latinas are hot. A Lebanese American might, like, set off a bomb or something.

Urueta approaches the mendacity of pop-cultural corruption from, well, as many directions as possible. Hanán’s thirst for the big time is palpable, as is her at least temporary willingness to toss aside her scruples and basic good sense. The underlings of FAD are total toadies to the whims of the power-wielding ethnic consultant Mary O’Malley, who looks Latina, but speaks with an oddly accented brogue, and who has a dastardly secret mission of her own. (She’s played, to the hilt, by Milagro artistic director Olga Sanchez, in a brash comic swoop that’s a bit like Lotte Lenya’s hilariously sadistic villain turn in the James Bond flick From Russia with Love.) A lesbian love affair, natch, has to be hidden from the public, which comes in for a few jabs of its own: it loves to crown celebrities, and then knock ’em off their throne.

Director Antonio Sonera sets the play’s anti-naturalistic comic-strip tone from the get-go, plopping Hanán down for an interview in front of the FAD toadies Jill, Will, and Bill (Kelly Godell, Matthew Kerrigan, and Orion Bradshaw) as they pull a sharply choreographed little ritual power dance in their executive office chairs to keep her in her place. Al Capp, author of the satirical comic strip Li’l Abner, would’ve been proud. Every now and again the FAD Girls (Louise Chambers, Cari Spinnler, Lauren Mitchell, Sarah DeGrave) pop out of the woodwork to give the proceedings a little game show/Rockettes lift. And Michelle Escobar gives a lovely, understated performance as Blanca, the “office bitch” and uncommonly sane gofer in the corporate madhouse who falls for Hanán and tries to get her to face up to her lies.

But everything in this three-ring circus of a play revolves around Nicole Virginia Accuardi’s lead performance as Hanán, and she pulls it off beautifully, suggesting both Hanán’s drive to be famous and her innate skepticism about the whole process: you get the sense that she and Blanca are the only grounded characters among the oddball and high-flying bats in the belfry. It’s an old trick, having the main character be the calm center of a crazy community: think Mickey Mouse, or Pogo the possum. And a big part of the trick is to be calm without being boring. Accuardi reveals plenty enough spit and vinegar to keep things interesting.

As entertaining as Learn To Be Latina is – and it’s a kick in the raunchy pants – at about two and a half hours, it’s also almost too much of a good thing. A bit of trimming wouldn’t be out of line. It’s also true that it comes in for something of a soft landing, with a happily-ever-after ending that wraps things up a little too tidily. But those are small flaws. Mark Haack’s corporate-shiny set (just wait ’til the men’s bathroom slides out of the back wall), Emily Powell Wright’s bright and sassy costumes, and Rodolfo Ortega’s Latin-beat sound design help let the good times roll.

 *

The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s cult mini-musical from 2002, opened Friday night in the downstairs Ellen Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, and when its single 90-minute act ended, most of the audience rose and gave the show a standing ovation.

Harper and Clark, "The Last Five Years." Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Harper and Clark, “The Last Five Years.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel

It was easy to understand why. Everything about the show, from Rick Lewis’s characteristically impeccable musical direction to Daniel Meeker’s crisply effective scenic and lighting design, is smoothly professional. The pop-saturated score (the singers are accompanied, ably, by pianist Eric Little, who is semi-hidden behind a scrim) goes down easily. The play features a clever, if schematic, structure: one actor begins at the end of the story and works back to the beginning; the other starts at the beginning and moves to the end. And you could hardly ask for more from the musical’s two talented and energetic stars, Meredith Kaye Clark and Drew Harper.

You could, however, ask for less. The Last Five Years is a slim piece of theater, cut to the bone, with only two performers and, because it’s sung through, precious little opportunity to build plot or character except through its lyrics. The tale of a marriage frittered away over five years of misunderstanding and neglect, it needs stillness to make an emotional impact: things need time and space to sink in.

Yet especially in the show’s first half, up to the point of the sweet and nervous actual wedding ceremony, director Nancy Keystone approaches the thing almost as if it were an audition for Cirque du Soleil. Hardly a moment is left unelaborated, hardly a lyrical cue unaccompanied by illustrative movements. We get skateboards and imaginary tightrope-walking and sudden exuberant leaps to remind the audience that this is, indeed, a musical, and musicals are energetic: everything but jazz hands. And while Clark and Harper pull off the choreography with professional aplomb, all of that sound and fury detracts from the actual, quiet telling of the tale. When it’s at its most effective – and it has some very good moments – this production drops the overt theatrics and just lets the story tell itself.

The story of The Last Five Years, by most reports, is the barely fictionalized story of Brown’s own failed marriage to a struggling actress, who at one point threatened to sue him because the script was too obviously like their own story. In the play, Jamie (Harper) is a young writer whose new book hits the big time and takes him on a rush of travel and fame. Cathy (Clark) is an aspiring actress who can’t get a toehold on her career. As Jamie goes from success to success, Cathy founders. He gets a swelled head; she feels abandoned and resentful. The lie at the center of the story seems to be that Jamie’s career ambitions were always more important to him than his marriage, though he never admitted it, and when push came to shove, he walked away.

Brown lays it out well, but it’s hard to feel a lot of introspection here. Jamie says mea culpa a lot, but the emphasis seems more on the mea than the culpa. And Cathy comes across (in the lyrics, at least) as weak and whiny, which might have more to do with Brown’s perception than reality. It certainly runs counter to the musical and dramatic strengths of Clark, who brings an electric, Streisand-style robustness to her performance and is a welcome addition to the city’s theater scene. I liked her very much as Kate in Kiss Me, Kate at Clackamas Rep, and I’m sorry I missed her acclaimed performance in The Light in the Piazza at Portland Playhouse. Before moving to Portland she toured nationally as Elphaba in Wicked, and any actress who can carry Elphaba in a string of 3,000-seat houses is hardly a clinging vine. Harper, too, is a relatively fresh and welcome addition to the city’s scene (he and Clark played Motel and Tzeitel in PCS’s Fiddler on the Roof last year, and also performed together in The Light in the Piazza).

The Last Five Years is a showcase for the next wave of talent on Portland’s theater scene. And from that perspective, I join in on opening night’s resounding applause. No lie.

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