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Theatre Review by James Wilson - August 1, 2023

Juan Castano, b, and Frank Wood
Photo by Joan Marcus
Although Toros, Danny Tejera's play currently running at Second Stage's McGinn/Cazale Theater, takes place in a posh suburb in Madrid, the twenty-something characters are metaphorically at sea. Adrift and unmoored, they find temporary solace in alcohol, drugs, and clubbing while a dying golden retriever serves as a palpable reminder of their own fleeting youth and mortality.

The play begins with Juan (Juan Castano), an aspiring nightclub DJ, blasting techno music for his friend from adolescence, Toro (Abubakr Ali). They are in Juan's garage (meticulously designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, and which includes an array of old bicycles, overflowing storage cabinets, gardening tools, and a working overhead garage door). Juan has converted the space into his man cave/ personal office, and anyone entering must abide by his rules. When Toro wants to play a tune of his own, for instance, Juan categorically shuts him down: "My house, my music," adding, "House rules. I don't make the rules I just enforce them."

Toro (a nickname, meaning "bull" in Spanish) has recently moved back to Madrid, where he works for Juan and Juan's super-rich father Carl (Frank Wood). Toro is emotionally fragile having recently recovered from a severe bout of depression, but he half-heartedly affirms, "I'm seriously fine now. I'm really not like suicidal anymore, or anything."

They are soon joined by their longtime friend Andrea (b), who is particularly adept at rolling joints and is, according to the script, "always very chill–she at all times may have just popped a valium." She also teaches kindergarten. As tensions rise, Andrea assumes the role of matador among the pair of combative toros of the title.

The last character is Tica (also played by Wood), Juan's feeble dog who only occasionally shows signs of life. Even a short walk out of the garage is an ordeal for the debilitated animal.

There are some effective moments as we watch the friends spar and gradually reveal their personal insecurities and familial conflicts. But the play's focus on disaffected privileged young people calls to mind Kenneth Lonergan's much more effective This Is Our Youth, and its allusions to hypermasculinity as a mechanism for power, as well as characters' casual misogyny, put the play in David Mamet and Neil LaBute territory. Toros does not, however, have the poetic and ricochet-language of the former nor the gasp-inducing shocks of the latter. There is instead a great deal of languid exposition that finally gives way to a rather deflating climax. Most crucially, Juan is so unlikeable and such an unmitigated bully that it is difficult to understand why any of the characters (including the moribund dog) would opt to be around him.

As directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the production is also stylistically confusing. The design elements are generally very specific and ultra-realistic. That is, in addition to the precise details of the garage, Barbara Samuels' impeccable lighting even includes an exterior motion sensor light that a well-to-do family would install near the entryways. Yet, this is at odds with some of the directorial and design choices. For example, the prominent and covered Audi, which is supposed to be a mark of wealth and prestige (and enabling an important plot point) is revealed as a hodgepodge of lawn furniture, metal crates, and freestanding headlights. Moreover, the choice to have a human play the dog (which Wood performs with tremendous skill) isn't clear dramaturgically, nor is an abstract dance representing a sexual encounter, which comes across as silly rather than sultry.

Toros is in the tradition of angry and youthful plays like John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Tejera's drama may not have the smoldering rage of his predecessors, but there are enough sparks to make him a playwright worth following.

Through August 13, 2023
Second Stage Theater, McGinn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th St., New York NY
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