Less Than Meets the Eye: “Fade” at TheaterWorks

By Brooks Appelbaum

“Fade,” by Tanya Saracho, playing through June 30 at TheaterWorks, has an intriguing and complex first scene; unfortunately, this scene is the most interesting one that you’ll see during the evening. Despite strong directing (Jerry Ruiz); excellent acting (Eddie Martinez and Elizabeth Ramon); a clean and clever set design (Mariana Sanchez); and unusually atmospheric lighting that makes a spare office space reflect the characters’ emotions and developing relationship (Amith Chandrashaker), the script’s challenging questions about race, class, gender, assimilation, and selling out are ultimately reduced to sketch-like encounters that outline a predictable and, at times, completely implausible plot.

Elizabeth Ramon plays Lucia, a young woman born in Mexico and now living in L.A. She has written one novel but her second is not going well; as a result, she has taken a job writing for television, though she has no experience in the field. How, then, did she pass the interview? She is, as one of her less-than-tactful male colleagues tells her, the “diversity hire.”

The building’s janitor, Abel (Eddie Martinez), is also Mexican, though he and his parents were born in the United States. What constitutes a “Mexican,” from the point of view of each of these characters, is one of the first scene’s most compelling questions. As soon as Lucia sees Abel, when he comes to clean her office, she begins to speak to him in Spanish, telling him what a relief it is to be able to converse in her mother tongue. When he answers in English, they begin to discuss, explore, and disagree about their similarities and differences, especially concerning ethnicity and class.

But the script soon overshadows these more weighty issues with a sit-com-like relationship between these two. Lucia is desperate to make a successful story pitch to her boss, thus proving herself worthy of the job; and Abel has plenty of stories. Their growing fondness for each other, and Abel’s growing willingness to help Lucia, will surprise no one who has ever seen a man/woman two-hander before (though two-handers such as “Sex with Strangers,” performed at TheaterWorks last season, can certainly deliver more suspense, surprise, and substance).

“Fade” gestures towards all these aforementioned virtues, but in the end, the plot has far too many gaps to sustain our confidence or belief. And this is a shame, since Jerry Ruiz (who directed the world premiere at the Denver Center of the Arts and took the production to Primary Stages in New York) directs with a quiet flare and has cast terrific actors. Elizabeth Ramon gives a finely tuned, often funny, performance, supplying as much nuance as the play allows and holding our interest with the character’s ever-changing moods and poignantly confused feelings about nearly every aspect of her life.

Eddie Martinez has played Abel since the play’s premiere, and this experience shines. His Abel is easy and relaxed but understandably cautious: Martinez’s performance creates what suspense can be mined from the script. In his strongly emotional scenes, he demonstrates how powerful “Fade,” could be if it were taken through several more drafts.

As mentioned, the set is ingenious, enabling us to see Abel’s world through the floor-to- ceiling glass panes of Lucia’s office: the vending machines (which he must keep filled), the water cooler (which he supplies with fresh water), and the expanse of carpet, which he vacuums every day. The lighting, too, contributes to this effect and also follows Lucia’s relationship, not only to Abel, but perhaps more importantly, to her career as a scriptwriter. M.L. Dogg’s sound design punctuates the brief scenes and helps keep the tempo moving, and Harry Nadal’s costumes effectively illustrate Lucia’s character arc.

Tanya Saracho has written numerous plays and won an impressive number of awards and fellowships. She is now, as the program tells us, writing three television series, and her Playwright’s Notes let us know that aspects of “Fade” draw upon her initial feelings about being a television writer. She says that, “the script became something more than ‘a play about TV.’” Yes, “Fade” is something more, but barely. In structure (those lightning-fast scenes that never fully develop their ideas), the script resembles commercial television far too much. As for the issues and characters here, in today’s United States we need them represented far more widely, and “Fade” at least gives us a look. But that look is limited; we need far more substance to grapple with.