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Hermanas

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If your average Jewish mother is a bulldozer, this one more closely resembles those landmark-leveling alien ships from Independence Day. Forget freedom, living life guilt-free, or ever having a moment's peace: This mother, Telma, isn't your average Jewish matron because she's not just Jewish - she's also Mexican. And, boy, when she lets go - which she does mercifully often in the new Fringe Festival play Hermanas - the sparks just won't stop.

As played by the gravelly ingratiating Kathryn Kates, Telma wields her influence over her two daughters, Lisette and Claudia, as though it were a riding crop and they were her false-footed mares. Leaving endlessly whiny answering machine messages, bursting in at all the worst possible moments, and loving them with an irresistibly suffocating completeness, this is a woman who demands that you not ignore her.

As just about anyone in New York knows, when a Jewish mother commands, you listen. And, better still, you revel in every minute of it. It's not just how Kates weds the most overwrought stereotypes of Mexicans and Jewish mothers, resulting in a performance that - vocally and physically - will likely rank as one of the year's brashest highlights. In fact, it's not even just Kates at all.

It's also Ryan Duncan (late of Altar Boyz), as Danny, aka Mr. Perfect, an OB/GYN with enough muscles, skills, and humanitarian bents to make any woman swoon. And it's Eduardo (Paolo Andino), the Enrique Iglesias knock-off whose dyslexia and heavy tongue create one of the most incomprehensible Latin Lovers ever. As for Angie (Bridget Moloney), a studying Texan psychiatrist and diehard Latinophile, and Gabriela (Denise Quiñones), Danny's stunning and too-interested acquaintance-of-uncertain-relationship... it's about them, too.

This delirious array of outsized personalities is so well realized by these amazing performers in Monica Yudovich's play at the Classic Stage Company that it would be a shame to have to dampen their fire. Yet for all the charismatic, unbridled unpredictability of this group, that the show isn't really about them doesn't exactly work in their favor.

Hermanas is supposed to be a gently comic love story between Lisette and Claudia (remember them?), respectively played by Yudovich and Adriana Gaviria, who need to learn to stop fighting over petty things like possessions and men and rediscover what's truly important. It seems that Lisette, returning for her final year of college in Austin, and Claudia, a photographer who abandoned her family for New York and now wants to return, both have eyes for Eduardo. Lisette broke up with him just before summer started, and Claudia apparently met him at some drunken party where, well, something happened between them. Now Claudia and Eduardo can barely keep away from each other, leaving poor Lisette without a sister or a boyfriend! Whatever will she do?

Unfortunately, neither half of the maudlin center of this crazy confection of a show is up to the unenviable task of making this play serious about anything. And with all that unendingly goofy support from mother and friends, Lisette and Claudia look less like sisters than the central characters of a sitcom pilot who are only there for respectability until audiences unearth the next Fonzie or Urkel. Well in keeping with this, they treat each other so amiably awfully, that even when you should hate one for one reason or another, you can't help but love them both.

This surfeit of syrup - partially redeemed only by Yudovich's graceful portrayal of the younger sister unable to escape her elder's shadow - does not make savoring the whole of Hermanas an easy task. Claudia Zelevansky's lemonade-crisp direction, equal parts raucous farce and considerate drawing-room comedy, gives the production the verve and fluidity it requires to sail effortlessly from one amusement to another. And when Yudovich slips in just the right joke for one of those subsidiary personages, expect a seven-car pile-up of laughs.

Were it not for those supporting actors investing their every line with sparklingly specific depth, there'd be too little here to view with the naked eye. As hilarious as Duncan is in innocently expressing his impossibly rich life, as smarmily clueless as Andino makes Eduardo, however many male hearts former Miss Universe Quiñones brings to a life-threatening standstill, as winningly dopey as Moloney is, and as outlandishly oppressive as Kates is in ruling the theater, no amount of fall-on-your-face funny can add sufficient substance to justify the paper-thin Hermanas as anything but an incredible character-acting showcase.

Yudovich can at least find some solace in the fact that few playwright-performers have ever dared make their costars look as good as she does here. But that they're all so look- and laugh-worthy, drawing attention away from what Yudovich was really trying to say, might be a problem worth addressing. Telma won't like it, but so what? Great theater - or even just better theater - is often worth the risk.


Hermanas
Through August 27
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with one intermission
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and Festival Performance Schedule: www.fringenyc.org