Latinologues: A Comedy About Life in America Created and written by Rick Najera. Directed by Cheech Marin. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by T. Richard Fitzgerald. Video design by Dennis Diamond. Costume design by Santiago. Starring Eugenio Derbez, Rick Najera, Rene Lavan, Shirley A. Rumierk.
A Puerto Rican, a Cuban, and a Dominican walk into a bar. Do you (a) think this situation has great comic potential, (b) think this situation has little comic potential, or (c) not understand what comic potential anyone could find in this situation?
If you answered (c), Latinologues is probably not for you. You might enjoy Rick Najera's show at the Helen Hayes, but as it derives a considerable portion of its considerable comedy from highlighting the differences between these types of Latin Americans (and several others), you might just as easily find yourself lost.
At least you're unlikely to be alone in your bewilderment. At the performance I attended, the audience was clearly divided into two distinct factions: one that found nearly every joke - especially those poking fun at Latin-American stereotypes - hysterically funny, and one that didn't. It became apparent early on that the Latino portion of the audience likely constituted the former group, and almost everyone else the latter.
All this isn't to say that you won't enjoy Latinologues if you're not a member of the target audience; you might very well find, as I did, that Najera's sharp writing style and Cheech Marin's buoyant direction help bridge many of the built-in cultural chasms. But you might also find that a fair number of the jokes - particularly in the show's earliest scenes - go over your head. (I was particularly puzzled by "Guatemalans are the leprechauns of Central America.") If that's the case, you can safely grin and bear it - the show does, eventually, become more accessible to everyone.
These more accessible sections focus on a handful of characters Najera has created, who speak about specific aspects of their lives. A proud Colombian busboy named Alejandro (Rene Lavan), who considers himself a macho, relates a torrid story about a whirlwind one-night stand; a Dominican woman (Shirley A. Rumierk) explains why she considers herself "The Virgin of the Bronx," despite being heavy with child; a hotshot filmmaker (Najera) discusses his newest Latin-American-themed projects; and so on.
Comedy content can vary greatly from scene to scene: One shockingly serious (and moving) entry late in the show sees a Dominican janitor reminiscing over how his life was affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center; one focusing on a fussy mother (Eugenio Derbez) with a gaggle of children, one of whom is apparently a vampire, could have been written for the TV series In Living Color (which Najera wrote for). But each scene, regardless of content, stands well enough on its own and effectively displays a different facet of Latin-American culture.
It's Najera's attempts to make a play from these scenes and characters, developing connections between them that become more evident and convoluted as the evening presses on, that reveal his weaknesses as a dramatist. He has no trouble sketching out characters robust enough to deliver five minutes or so of personal elucidation. But none is deep enough or interesting enough to warrant a return visit, let alone a final scene in which they all meet and interact for the first time.
Marin, an imposing comic force in his own right, does all he can to make this scene play, and it almost does. It's got lots of potential that can't be tapped, because the show never truly earns it; it's the kind of thing that can provide a satisfying cap to an already rich evening, but can't make up for what's not provided elsewhere. The same is true of an overly lengthy (and barely funny) movie parody, Mexican Moses, that grinds the proceedings to a halt just when they should be gaining momentum. These might be great gags for a TV comedy sketch (though that's doubtful), but they're not right for this stage show.
What is right are the performers, who are all impressive comedians and generally fine actors capable of bringing poignancy to unexpected moments. If Marin hasn't done much for the show's look - there's no set, and only Kevin Adams's lights and Dennis Diamond's occasionally witty video projections can provide any real visual atmosphere - he does keep up the heat level and the pace. Even when its energy flags, as too often happens in its middle sections, Latinologues is never boring.
Nor, unfortunately, is it ever exciting. Much of it is standup - even good standup - but it doesn't live in the theater, and its impact is at best commensurate with its hit-and-run joke-telling style. It doesn't take long to realize that's what's missing in Latinologues is a distinctive, theatrical voice that rings equally true as both comedy and theatre. John Leguizamo, himself a veteran of shows similar to this one, would find a way to make the show work, and make it funny (and probably profound) for everyone. That's a skill that Najera has yet to master.