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Chimichangas and Zoloft

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Teddy Cañez, Xochitl Romero, Carmen Zilles, and Alfredo Narciso.
Photo by Ahron Foster

Given the importance of unintended consequences to its plot, Fernanda Coppel's new play Chimichangas and Zoloft is well named. One can never quite predict, as struggling matriarch Sonia Martinez makes clear, the effect that either the antidepressant or the deep-fried south-of-the-border food will have. (In Sonia's case, the former makes her catatonic, the latter makes her gassy.) And certainly in the production that just opened at Atlantic Stage 2 under Jaime Castañeda's direction, you as an audience member can never be entirely certain what's going to happen next.

In this case, however, that isn't always a good thing. Coppel pulls no punches in depicting two Mexican-American families living in Los Angeles who are united by the tightly intertwined relationships of the parents and the fervent friendship of their two daughters. But she goes so far in charting their heartbreaks, humiliations, and psychoses that as the show plods on you may find yourself wishing she'd contained her ambitions a bit. The exact breakdown of, well, the dual-family breakdown she's crafted is more than a little on the far-fetched side.

That's part of the point, considering that Sonia (Zabryna Guevara) disappeared after the night of her 40th birthday, leaving everyone wondering how they contributed to her mania. Her husband Ricardo (Teddy Cañez) and teenage daughter Jackie (Carmen Zilles) each blame themselves for different reasons: He was having an affair, she admittedly she was a lesbian mere hours before mom vanished. Meanwhile, Jackie's best friend Penelope Lopez (Xochitl Romero) and her father, Alejandro (Alfredo Narciso) are struggling themselves. Sonia drove their carpool, now Penelope is pregnant and the underemployed Alejandro (he works nights as a bartender) isn't just on the verge of bankruptcy but also of having his own illicit dalliances with a married partner found out.

I probably shouldn't divulge much more about the story, just in case you can't guess the general directions in which it moves. (And if you can guess, you're almost certainly right.) What Coppel does well is define the boundaries against which these people are chafing, and explore how their culture—both inborn and inherited—affects their public and private choices. All five are naturalized Americans, but still have problems fitting in and living the lives they think they're supposed to. Responsibility is a major silent force throughout, and seeing how everyone deals with theirs is where most of the work's insight is found.

Beyond that, Chimichangas and Zoloft is not especially spicy. Its mysteries are half-hearted and, in one too-crucial case, eye-rolling. (Among other things, would Alejandro really carry on his fling in the living room while Penelope is home?) And although it employs a slightly off-kilter structure, in which Sonia's monologues alternate with the real-life scenes about the people she left behind, Coppel doesn't use them to strengthen her central conceit of the way secrets break down rather than preserve bonds. In fact, Sonia is so removed from the action that it's hardly clear how she fits into both the Martinez and Lopez families. Coppel doesn't address with any particular thoughtfulness the mounting stresses that led to Sonia's departure, and though Castañeda's staging and Lauren Helpern's sunny scenic design are otherwise clean, it's difficult to be sure exactly from where Sonia is speaking to you.

At least Guevara's portrayal is satisfyingly rich and layered, with Sonia's tamped-down spirit appearing just often enough from beneath her prevailing depression to convince you she's worth saving; you see in her the wife, the mother, and the individual woman who's losing her sense of self, so as a result you want her to overcome her challenges. The other performances are much more strained and much less affecting, with Zilles and Romero hinting at a sisterly union that never reaches full blossom and Cañez and Narciso believable in neither their simmering romances or the bitter rivalry that characterizes the men early on.

They're victims, but less of their own appetites than Coppel's wanting to cover too much ground when a more focused approach might better help her reach her goal. Chimichangas and Zoloft is an admirable examination at how we too often let our communities, both macro and micro, define us when we can't even pinpoint ourselves. But a play about searching for the heart we have rather than the one others want for us would greatly benefit from a more identifiable heart of its own.

Chimichangas and Zoloft
Through June 24
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current schedule: TicketCentral

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