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Tell Hector I Miss Him

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 23, 2017

In the program for her new play at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 space, Tell Hector I Miss Him, playwright Paola Lázaro references winning the 2011 Arts Entertainment Scholarship Award from the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts for the pilot she wrote for the TV series Trópico. Information is scarce online about this endeavor, but if it's related to the 2007 Telenovela of the same title, that would make a lot of sense. Lázaro's play is structured very much like a torrid soap opera, with lots of characters (12, all roughly of equal weight), intricate relationships, bizarre situations, and rampant quick-cutting that all seems designed to keep you in a half-mixed-up state so you can better relate to the quirky, uncentered people onstage.

But whatever else soap operas may be, they are dangerously compelling to the point of being addicting—sometimes the plot really can be its own reward, even if it's not exactly nutritious. But there's nothing compelling or addicting about Lázaro's play; she hasn't yet discovered how to assemble its myriad pieces into anything resembling coherent, let alone emotionally attuned, storytelling. Across a year of 45 minute episodes, maybe it all would go somewhere. But with a running time of 130 minutes including the intermission, it somehow feels both an hour too short and two hours too long.

Because there's no narrative, breaking down what happens is not easy. Lázaro trains her eye on several different places and families within a slum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with her apparent goal being to show how social rot impedes personal development. The teenage Toño is suspended from school for sexual harassment after accidentally falling on his teacher while he has an erection (yes, really), while coping with his eternally drunk mother. A couple is so stymied in their attempts to conceive, the wife seeks solace in the bed of a younger, more handsome man she knows she doesn't love. A 16-year-old admits to one 26-year-old woman how in love with her she is; a young man, rendered partially retarded as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, chokes her friend. And there's an American girl prowling around who does nothing but make cat sounds.

Peppered through this are endless exchanges about topics as numbing about the fluid weight of bottles of Gatorade and how electronics are ruining home life. There's one scene where two men scream the same Spanish phrase at us for two minutes, and another where a guy who looks like he works at Best Buy soils himself during a cocaine binge and has to be helped by his magic-practicing dead father. And, though the competition is hefty, the nadir occurs late in the second act when three women onstage compare the attractiveness of their clitorises. (This is justified, you see, because one was told by a past lover her vagina looks like ground beef. Um, okay.)

There's more, but you get the gist. Except for the cat and clitoris stuff, which are rotten ideas terribly executed, nothing else is unsalvageable in theory, but it all demands much stronger technical underpinnings. Lines are repeated so frequently and unnecessarily, it's difficult to know whether it's Lázaro's clumsy method of dramatizing scattered minds or whether none of the actors know their lines. The glut of short, meaningless scenes kills momentum before it can start; one is, at most, 20 seconds in duration, containing a single line that communicates nothing, and plenty of others are no better. And the second act is dedicated exclusively to wrapping up the first act's complications, yet still leaves every major plot thread dangling.

Lázaro is obviously still developing her voice, but needs a firmer grasp on the rules before she'll be ready to subvert them. Honing in on the material that matters, whether that means cutting characters (my vote) or overwriting for now and then editing down a lot later, is critical; at the moment, she doesn't know where she's going, so you don't have a prayer of getting there unscathed. The right director could help her focus, but David Mendizábal has delivered such a cluttered, poorly paced production, even what may be passable doesn't get the chance to shine.

Sadly, nothing else is any better. The unit set (by Clint Ramos) depicting a subterranean basement, in theory of an old fort that plays no role in the action, is dark in color and unsuited to anything that transpires. The costumes (Dede M. Ayite) are drab and unflattering, even when they're supposed to be sexy; the lights (by Eric Southern) appear bored; and it's not clear who is responsible for the eight video screens above the stage that display a constantly rolling tide for literally the entire playing time, for no discernible reason. The acting, too, which ranges from broad and mumbling to broad and blaring and reflects no recognizable humanity, is worth neither further discussion nor naming and shaming the performers.

The title, also, is a stretch, a reference to Héctor Lavoe (1946-1993), a Puerto Rican salsa singer Lázaro has cited as a "theatrical influence"). In the play, salsa is used, albeit glancingly, as a stand-in for intimacy—something every character wants but is not able to find. Because in our impersonal, too-connected, quick-hit world, we're often more isolated from each other than ever, this should be able to resolve into a play that's as trenchant, affecting, and rewarding in ways soap operas or telenovelas can rarely manage. Tell Hector I Miss Him, however, is not remotely that play.


Tell Hector I Miss Him
Through February 19
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: atlantictheater.org


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