Also see Wally's review of Dreamlandia
Secret Things starts out with potential. Most of its almost two-hour running time is not bad, but the last 15 minutes are such a ludicrous mishegas that I sat there totally dumbfounded: Is this for real? I'm sure that it was only compassion for the actors on stage that kept the audience from laughing out loud. Couldn't somebody have kept this thing from derailing?
Secret Things, although written under a grant out of Arizona, is tailor made for New Mexico. It takes place mostly in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and deals with a topic that surfaced fairly recently in our state: Crypto-Jews. "Crypto" is Greek for "hidden," and these are people who are Jewish by ethnicity and culture, but who have hidden their Jewishness for about 500 years, since they were expelled from Spain in 1492. Then, when the Inquisition hit Mexico, they had to flee to the northern reaches of that country, up the Camino Real (the Royal Road) to what is now northern New Mexico. They have lived here ever since, most of them as Catholics, but they haven't totally lost touch with their roots.
The story of the play is that Delia, a journalist for Time magazine, convinces her editor (with whom she has just broken up) to let her come back to her home state of New Mexico to research a story on the crypto-Jews. Are they really Jews, or just faking it for some reason? Even if they claim that they're Jewish, how can they prove it after so many generations?
Does Delia, a Latina, discover that she herself is Jewish? Does she hook up with Abel, the hunky sports-writer who is her main informant about this subject? Will they discover that they are soul mates, each other's platonic "other half"? What do you think? But that's not really the interesting part of the play.
What I find more fascinating is the detective work that goes into determining who is a crypto-Jew. After all, most of them will deny it, insisting that they are good Catholics. Check out that other village, that's where the Jews live. But there are subtle clues. It might be in a name. The example used in the play is Rael, which is a fairly common last name around here, and is said to be derived from Israel. Or, as an audience member told me, Velarde, a town in northern New Mexico whose name comes from "vela arde," meaning "a candle burning."
Or it might be the way your mother sweeps the floor: Always toward the center of the room. She never sweeps the dust out the door, because it might get on the mezuzah, a fragment of scripture attached to the door frame. The mezuzah has now been replaced by a doorbell, but why does Delia's father, who insists he is an atheist, still kiss the doorbell when he enters the house?
Then there are the circumstances facing the crypto-Jews, who are Sephardic, after they have "come out." Will other Jews, who are primarily Ashkenazi, accept them into the synagogue? What proof do you have that you're really a Jew? Is it fair that your family has been hiding out for 500 years, and now all of a sudden, you want to be like us? You never suffered like we have. You don't know what it really means to be a Jew.
All of this could have been the basis for a good play. As I said, it had potential. But Romero tricks it up with hokey dream sequences and "Ally McBeal"-ish interpolations where the action stops, the lighting changes, and the characters say what they are really feeling toward each other (mainly on the order of "you're so hot, I'd sleep with you right now if we weren't in a Starbucks").
Still, all of this would be tolerable if it weren't for that severely miscalculated ending, which takes place in an alternate reality called Sephardia. There's something to do with pomegranates too, but the symbolism is beyond me. The whole thing beggars description. It really needs to be seen to be believed (or disbelieved), but I doubt that many people will have that opportunity.
What makes this all the more painful is that the performances and production are really quite good. Lila Martinez and Mario Moreno are an attractive couple of actors, well-cast and able. Benjamin Liberman plays Benjamin Liberman, but that's appropriate for this part. Especially good are Salomé Martinez Lutz and Harry Zimmerman as the parents, among other roles. What they are all asked to do in the Sephardia scene is beyond what any actor should have to endure.
The set by Josh Bien is simple but effective, and his lighting is excellent. Likewise the music by Casey Mraz and sound design by Linda Lopez McAlister. Valli Marie Rivera, the director, for the most part does a good job with what she has been given, but from her director's note in the program, she seems complicit in the overall structure of the play. Where are the Elia Kazans, who would have insisted that Tennessee do a rewrite, nowadays?
Secret Things, a play by Elaine Romero, presented by Camino Real Productions July 25 through August 11, 2013, in Albuquerque at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and August 16 through 25 in Santa Fe at Teatro Paraguas. For ticket and more information, visit www.caminorealabq.com.