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Knives and Other Sharp Objects

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Noemi del Rio and Joselin Reyes
Photo by Ari Mintz.

Just because one story tells you something about a place or a culture doesn't mean that 10 automatically tell you more. In fact, Raúl Castillo is proving that isn't at all the case with his new play at The Public Theater, Knives and Other Sharp Objects: The more plots, characters, and details he piles on, the less secure his potentially fascinating play becomes.

It's good that Castillo's play is being presented as part of the Public LAB series for emerging artists and works-in-progress, because that means it may receive the time and attention it needs to find its voice. Right now, everything about this production, which has been directed by Felix Solis, is muted to the point of petrification. And its glut of ideas is the 300-pound Gorgon in the room.

Among the colliding stories at play:

* Two young sisters, Beatrice (Noemi del Rio) and her older sister Alex (Joselin Reyes), leave their home in Mexico to stay with their aunt and uncle in Texas while their father is treated for cancer;

* On their bus trip, they meet up with a mysterious injured man named Manuel (Michael Ray Escamilla), who needs to borrow one of their dresses so he can disguise himself and escape from someone who's pursuing him;

* After the girls arrive in Texas, their uncle Jaime (Jaime Tirelli) and his white wife Lydia (Candy Buckley) are having severe marital problems that the girls soon discover their presence will only exacerbate;

* The older of the girls' cousins, Loren (Amanda Perez), frequents the local Hooters to meet men, and has become quite taken with a soon-to-ship-out soldier named Harvey (Ed Vassallo) she met there;

* The younger cousin, Lucy (Ana Nogueira), is a delinquent herself, and highly willing and able to get Beatrice into all sorts of trouble;

* Harvey's younger friend Perry (Angelo Rosso), also a soldier, is mortified that he's never had sex, and is determined to lose his virginity before he heads overseas to possibly die for his country.

That's the starting lineup, although there are also even shakier side trips into issues of homosexuality and the United States's crumbling economy, either of which could of course fuel a play itself. Castillo, however, is so determined to tell every possible story about these people that he ends up telling none of them well.

His quandary is somewhat understandable. He's trying to show the complex breadth of the immigrant experience at the United States's southern border: what it's like to live here full time, what it's like to visit, what it's like to be forced to leave, what it's like to face losing everything, what it's like when you don't live up to your family's expectations, and what it's like when all these what-it's-likes intersect. And Castillo succeeds at least in showing how Mexicans aren't the threat to American culture they're often depicted as - they have become American culture.

Such an ambitious idea demands a more ambitious treatment than the sloppy one it receives here. Tom Stoppard knew he couldn't compress the philosophical refashioning of Europe in The Coast of Utopia, so he made it a three-play cycle; Tracy Letts gave the Westons of August: Osage County three and a half hours to work through a Midwest's worth of deception and destruction. So much of Castillo's two hours and 15 minutes is composed of half-formed notions, spectral personalities, and dangling narrative threads that you leave the theater scarcely knowing more about anyone than you did when you entered.

Solis has staged all this as clearly as possible on Peter Ksander's vaugely Southwestern almost-ballroom set, but he never gives you the tools to perceive how all the scattered elements combine. Nor do the actors - practically everyone brings overly weighty sitcom-style histrionics to their portrayals rather than vibrant theatrical undestatement. Buckley has momentary flashes of heat as the had-it-up-to-here matriarch drowning in everyone's problems, but they're not enough to ever catch real fire.

For that you need air, and Castillo has provided not nearly enough of it. With some reconsideration of how he places his pieces on the board and - especially - judicious cuts of dialogue, characters, and clichés, Castillo may yet reveal his play's hidden thematic excitement. Until he does, Knives and Other Sharp Objects is likely to remain dull, dull, dull.

Knives and Other Sharp Objects
Through April 19
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The Public Theater

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