The Lopez Family Crafts a Blockbuster
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — If you were born in New York and see a set that has been detailed with a rollaway folding cot in the hallway, and a living room view of not only the standard-issue brick wall of the building behind yours, but also the laundry hung out wherever space permits, you know that this is the Bronx, Brooklyn or Manhattan West Side post-war apartment that your parents grew up in, and spent their lives striving to escape. In Mathew Lopez’s play Somewhere, a small altar with red candles tells you that the family who lives here is Latino, or “Latin” (Anglicized). The set by Andrea Bechert plays host to those New York characters who weren’t pictured as fashion plates, or portrayed as young professionals pursuing a hyperbolized Sex-in-the-City future. This is the living room where working class families who were the backbone of garment shops and service jobs rested their weary feet at the end of a shift—or a double shift. We are looking at what became the New York of the mid-sixties, both chronologically and geographically. It’s where Matthew Lopez shares the story of a family loosely resembling that of Lopez’s father and aunt, the show’s star, Priscilla Lopez. Built around her character’s partly-imagined, partly-several-degrees’-proximity to choreographer Jerome Robbins, who is reported to be nearby shooting West Side Story, the play recounts how a female head of household, Inez Candelaria [Priscilla Lopez] schemes to find a way into that film for her children. Between a fulltime job waiting tables and several part-time “home work” jobs, such as sewing, and caring for other people’s children, she manages to pay for ballet lessons for her daughter Rebecca [Michelle Cabinian] and position her children to be in the right place at the right time. Inez launches her own private war against all the odds that stack up against a working class Puerto Rican family, even as Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’ urban renewal campaign threatens to render the Candelarias homeless. As if the challenges of living life in New York didn’t provide enough of an education about class relations, news of the revolution in Cuba, Puerto Rico’s sister island, and the escalating war against a revolution in Vietnam, invite grave doubts about the viability of the American Dream for those willing to pay attention. Inez is not listening. Yet, these changes register in the consciousness of her children–piecemeal via the scant details on the radio news, or menacingly via successive eviction notices.
The younger of Inez’s two sons, Francisco, played with endearing charm by Eddie Gutierrez, caters to his mother’s whims by buying into her dreams. Regarded as the least talented of her three children, he lip-syncs what he hears her intone, mostly to secure a place in her heart. He signs up for playwriting and acting lessons with the hope that he’ll catch a fire, and acts as his mother’s lieutenant by making an effort to corral the other two children, who have ideas of their own: Rebecca is prematurely ambitious and Alejandro [Michael Rosen], the most talented of the three, shrinks from engaging with what he sees as the pipe dream of an acting career because he realizes that, owing to the extended absence of the family’s father, Pepe, he must play the role of breadwinner if his mother’s plan is to ever succeed.
Act I opens to a victrola playing the original score recording of the Broadway musical, West Side Story. A news broadcast announces the taking of power in Cuba by armed revolutionaries, and deployment of U.S. advisers to Vietnam.
When Inez arrives home, we learn that you can set your watch by the unpredictability of her mood and the predictability of her regimen. If she’s made a pocketful of tips, she’s happy; if not, she’s poised like a heat-seeking missile to head for the sewing machine to make up the difference, but not before she cooks dinner without pausing to shower because “in this heat, it would be a waste of a shower.”
With her entrance, Inez begins issuing orders to her children that always begin with their name in apposition, and then, “I want you to . . .” The list of chores and tasks is as endless as her purchase is relentless, and there is no negotiating because Inez expects complete compliance. When she says grace, she utilizes it as a forum for launching a litany of castigations: “God bless Rebecca and let her know that the fork goes on the left when she sets the table. God bless Francisco, and please remind him that Cookie Rodriguez is Dominican,” and therefore poses a risk to our hygiene.
Absent from the family dinner table is Pepe, the legend who is Inez’s husband and the father of her children. Letters arrive that place him with guerilla fighters in Cuba or looking for work in Los Angeles, and each new letter prompts Inez to recount or reenact the story of her life in rural Puerto Rico as a farm girl who then migrates to the city in search of work. This leads inevitably to how she met Pepe, a musician, and how the pair instantly fell in love. Her children encourage her, adding details from earlier enactments and iterations, and we are left feeling discomfited by the many vagaries that never quite impeach the storied caballero who is Pepe.
The counterpoint to Inez’s obedient, if somewhat reluctant children is the family’s consigliere: Jamie MacRae [Leo Ash Evens]. Of him, Inez says, “My blanquito is the most successful. I made him the dancer he is today. Talent, hard work and luck split the difference.”
Jamie is a Caucasian young man whom Inez cared for along with her own when all were young children. She planted in Jamie the same seeds of ambition she hoped to see take root and flower in her own children. Though he was not the most talented of Inez’s charges, he was the most successful in her eyes: Jamie is Jerome Robbins’ dance captain for the opening scene of a film version of West Side Story that is being shot just down the street. His somewhat guilt-driven attempts to channel his success into inspiration for Inez’s children meet with mixed results. Her most talented child, Alejandro, resents Jamie for his place in his mother’s heart and a success that has arrived in no small part as a result of his race, though Alejandro concedes that as a white working class kid, Jamie did not have an easy row to hoe either. When Jamie tries to encourage Alejandro to audition, Alejandro points out what should be obvious to Jamie: “We come from the same neighborhood, we do not come from the same place.”
Jamie is more sure of Rebecca, whose enthusiasm offers him new clay to sculpt, and he paves the way for her to become an extra in the film, leaving it up to her to find her own path past that point. They exchange banter about West Side Story, replete with insider humor that will tickle the nostalgic funny bones of those who know the history of the Broadway show. Matthew Lopez, whose writing is sagacious beyond his years, has a gift for finding the irony not only in the bubble-bursting political events of the 1960s, but in the shameless artistic blunders of the period. He distills it all into bromides to nurse throughout. Inez declares, “Replacing Chita Rivera is like replacing the sun with a flashlight.”
It would be tempting to write that Somewhere is derivative of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, reset in New York three decades later. But in Priscilla Lopez’s choices, we see many more layers and levels of complexity than Williams let us see in Menagerie’s scheming maternal character, Amanda Wingfield. Amanda, who is on a downwardly mobile trajectory from her days as a southern belle, insistently drags her children through the mire of her delusions of grandeur to ultimate ruin. Inez Candelaria, on the other hand, is building a ladder out of her fantasies, not so much in search of social standing, as to find that one chink in the stone wall that opens up the pathway to her dream. Through her gestures and fiats, she creates enough luft to spirit at least two of her flock upward. Unlike Glass Menagerie’s Tom, who is a self-effacing poet working in a warehouse, Alejandro is the realist in the family who plays the role of the absent father, partnering with his mother to keep the family one step ahead of the bill collector. While his talent may outshine that of his siblings, he knows that theirs will never find expression unless he works day and night to keep the tab paid. He stays in the picture just long enough to make that happen.
Priscilla Lopez develops the character of Inez using a cascade of beats judiciously shaped by director Giovanna Sardelli. When presented with the specter of eviction, Inez opposes it in principle and practice—won’t budge, and tears up the offending notice. So when the wrecking ball can be heard knocking down surrounding walls, reality arrives as if it were a new character in the cast, and you see Inez respond in silence, suddenly very still, as if fearing that she hears the faint hint of a gathering storm in the distance, and therefore does a sudden 180, and, as if it were her intention all along, marshals her children into a strategic retreat.
There are no second act letdowns. Priscilla Lopez’s Ann Bancroft-like intensity and incomparable candlepower, weave a wick that lights up the entire cast.
The cogent writing, empathic direction, prescient design elements and emphatic lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, envelop this lively ensemble with the perfect cocoon. Add one or two smart investors, and its butterfly wings will soar to the heights of a New York theater in a pop-up version of Inez’s dream that even she could never have imagined.
Somewhere, January 16 – February 10, 2013 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Mountain View, CA. Tickets.