Boleros for the Disenchanted
By Geary Danihy
A young Puerto Rican woman is courted by two men, marries one of them, and the couple move to the United States where they grow old together.
How long did it take you to read the previous sentence? Three seconds? Well, it takes Boleros for the Disenchanted, a new play by José Rivera that recently premiered at the Yale Rep, over two hours to deliver essentially the same information.
Of course, the storyline of most plays can be compressed into one or two lines: Ghost of slain father urges son to seek revenge; son dithers until finally taking out entire court. What’s important is how the playwright embroiders, embellishes and drives his or her characters forward.
It’s not that Boleros isn’t entertaining – it is, especially in the first act – it’s just that there’s not much up for grabs in the play after Flora (played by Sona Tatoyan as a young woman and Adriana Sevan as an elderly matron) marries Eusebio (Joe Minoso as a young man; Gary Perez as an ailing elderly man). That is, nobody really wants anything that other people attempt to deny him or her; nobody seeks to hide great secrets (alright, there’s a secret, but it’s not very great). In other words, the play, especially in the second act, lacks conflict (as necessary in comedy as it is in drama – and Boleros has elements of both), and without conflict you don’t have much to hold your audience’s interest.
The program notes are filled with information about Puerto Rico in the 50s – the flow of immigrants from the island to the States and back again and the discrimination those who made the circular journey were faced with in both America and back in their homeland, but in the play this serves as a pale backdrop to the courtship of Flora by Manuelo (Felix Solis) and Eusebio and the married couple’s life in America.
Perez, playing Flora’s father, Don Fermin, in the first act, make several set-piece speeches about the capitalists and the gangsters who are ruining his country, and in the second act, as the aging Eusebio, rants against the discrimination he and his wife have faced in the States over the years, but this has little dramatic impact or import. The couple could just as easily have come from Italy, Mexico or Russia; the fact that they are from Puerto Rico really doesn’t resonate, at least in the second act.
The first act, which is set in the island, does carry a more Puerto Rican flavor, although the sprightly and engaging Tatoyan sounds more like she comes from Larchmont that Miraflores, That aside, the actress gives a charming performance as a young woman who will not buy into Manuelo’s machismo philosophy that “A man must sin. It’s in our blood.”
In perhaps the play’s most engaging scene, Manuelo attempts to argue his case that the long-term sexual fidelity that Flora is demanding of him is unnatural and perhaps even unhealthy. Tatoyan and Solis play nicely off each other here, with Sevan, as Dona Milla, Flora’s mother, hovering protectively in the background and threatening castration should Manuelo do her daughter wrong.
Equally agreeable are the scenes in which Eusebio courts a flirtatious yet cautious Flora, with her cousin, Petra (played with a nice degree of fire by Lucia Brawley), acting as matchmaker. A large man, Minoso gives a well-modulated performance as a swain who understands the stubborn nature of the girl he is courting and the necessity to move both slowly and gently.
The courtship, framed by the social and sexual mores and customs of a middle-class Puerto Rican family in the 50s, drives the first act to a very satisfying conclusion, with Eusebio besting Manuelo and winning Flora’s hand.
Rivera’s decision to place the entire second act in the States, with the couple at the end of their journey, takes the wind out of the play’s sails, divests it of its island flavor and offers the audience scenes with an On Golden Pond flavor that simply don’t generate much empathy. Since the audience has not been made dramatically privy to the couple’s trials and tribulations there’s not much emotional investment, and the extended scenes about the nature of marriage, with Flora acting as a ersatz marriage counselor to young Puerto Rican couples, commit the cardinal error of “telling” the audience rather than “showing.” It is only in the play’s final moments, when the “secret” is revealed, that there is an echo of the first act’s themes.
Admirably acted, with an eye-pleasing, colorful set by Linda Buchanan, Boleros for the Disenchanted would have been better served if Rivera had found a more engaging way to continue Flora and Eusebio’s story, a way that holds the audience’s attention for the duration of the play.
Boleros for the Disenchanted runs through Saturday, May 17. For tickets or more information call 432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org. To learn what other critics think of the show or to see what is playing at theaters throughout Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.org.