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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 8, 2017

Annie Dow and Eddie Martinez
Photo by James Leynse

For her play Fade, which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a Primary Stages production, Tanya Saracho has constructed a fascinating foundation: When social identity and racial identity collide in a closed environment, which has primacy? Lucia and Abel are both Mexicans living in America (neither really cares for the term "Mexican American"), but are at much different places on the traditional ladder of accomplishment. A celebrated novelist, Lucia has been unable to repeat the success of her first work, and thus has accepted a job as a diversity hire writing for a TV drama about a hard-bitten Latina police officer. (This necessitated her moving from Chicago to Los Angeles.) Abel, meanwhile, is a night janitor at her studio. She views every injustice she experiences from the top down, whereas he views his from the bottom up. Which is harder to overcome? And can these two ever meet in the middle?

A better question, I'm sorry to say, is, "Who cares?" Saracho's setup is plenty juicy, promising powerful recriminations, trenchant moralizing, and the kind of searing rhetoric on which August Wilson built his career. But the payoff, which consumes all but the first 10 minutes or so of this tedious 95-minute excursion, is so choked with clich├ęs that most of Saracho's strong groundwork, and director Jerry Ruiz's attempts to rouse it from its natural torpor, plunges headfirst into the meaningless.

Sifting through the myriad murky references to "Trump's America" is bad enough (perhaps they were in place when the play premiered in Denver last year and our current president was only a candidate, but they have a haphazardly pasted-on quality), the specifics of the TV show for which Lucia is writing are sketchy at best, and the playwright makes no serious attempts to avoid predictability in her own plotting. (When Lucia is desperate for a killer story idea to prove herself in the writer's room, guess where she turns? And the prevailing mystery of which of the two will triumph will not puzzle anyone who's paying marginal attention.)

Broad points, broadly made, are the order of the day. This could be an intentionally satirical riff on a theme raised during the action itself: the tendency for white executives (and, it's implied, audiences) to assume that no one with another skin color is capable of living a complex life. Lucia staring down this notion is even the source of the play's most concrete conflict. If Saracho is trying to critique one-dimensionality by playing into it for our benefit, that would make sense. Not that anything about the structure or the execution of the play supports this, mind you—it's all deadly earnest, right down to the many discussions of the role heritage plays in personal and familial development.

Such missteps and miscalculations could be forgiven, at least in part, if Fade enticed and excited with its treatment of them. But an almost complete lack of drama, stemming from the three-way collision of the incompatibility of the two characters, the leads' abilities to humanize them, and the attractive but static staging (the industrial-sunny closet-size office set is by Mariana Sanchez, and has been lushly lighted by Amith Chandrashaker), ensures that doesn't happen.

The narrative unrolls leisurely, the pair first meeting when Lucia needs help repairing some fallen shelves and assumes that Abel couldn't possibly speak (let alone be fluent in) English, and never picks up in tempo even as the temperature ought to get hotter as the friction between the two grows. Key moments, from Abel's recounting a violent episode with his ex-wife that landed him in prison to both of them discovering (and unsurprisingly consummating) a quiet kinship, deflate because they lack the urgency they'd need to be more than token, representative plot points.

Saracho doesn't define why we ought to care at all about the obviously privileged Lucia being challenged about, or threatening to sell out, her beliefs; the woman isn't likable (with Annie Dow's performance of her, awash in sped-up stridency, not helping), and her concerns are rendered as too internal to resonate to us in the outside world. You don't doubt how she's acting or how she will act in the future, which grates as the story assumes such things aren't just unknown, but unknowable.

Abel has the opposite problem. He's so presented as a paragon of the Working Man, with such gleaming motives as the eternally suffering immigrant (even though both he and his parents were born in the country, but whatever), that he seems no more like a real, relatable person than Lucia does. Eddie Martinez plays him forcefully, but force isn't what this man needs—he's a stepstool, not a firecracker, but one who is regretfully aware of the position he occupies.

He can't understand Lucia and she can't understand him; they may as well be from two different countries, if not two different historical epochs. Treating these two as a brother and sister—really, more as cousins, and not the close kind—eradicates the real barriers that need to exist between them for their words and behavior to have a chance at landing. When all their arguments have already been made, and their futures have already been set, everything around them needs to be ornately crafted if you're going to want to go along for the ride, and it just isn't.

The evening does have its moments, particularly in the second half when Lucia realizes how much she's locked into the direction in which she's barreling, and finds herself unwittingly giving in to the temptations it offers. The point, especially in the stark but by-the-numbers final stage picture, is clear: You can get what you want if you're willing to take it and don't care about the cost. But any number of plays and Hollywood movies have said exactly that with more originality and wit than Saracho manages here. Even if Lucia can only attain her dreams by sacrificing her Latino soul on the altar of expediency, doesn't she deserve better than to be locked in a play that doesn't celebrate her for what she is? Fade could be about anyone, which is why it so frequently feels like it's about no one at all.

Through March 5
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix