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Mala Hierba

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marta Milans and Roberta Colindrez.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Women who are trapped in loveless marriages because of the financial security their husbands provide may no longer seem like a scintillating, or even relevant, topic for a play. But Tanya Saracho refreshes the notion with her Mala Hierba, which is now playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series. Here, four Mexican-American women are locked within obligations—of themselves and of others—that make both leaving and staying put unappetizing enough to power a surprising and highly watchable 90-minute evening.

Their culture is key, too, as each of them is constantly battling against the expectations of their families on one side of the equation, and the promise (or, perhaps, the illusion) of unlimited freedom on the other. Liliana (Marta Milans) may be the sexy young wife of a Texas border magnate, and may be showered with jewelry and clothing that brand her as someone well above her actual station. But she's there as much for her poor and aging parents, who are depending on her "income," and the welfare of the maid Yuya (Sandra Marquez), who hitched a ride with Liliana to her "new gig."

Whether you call it a marriage, a job, indentured servitude, or even outright slavery, there's no escape from it. Liliana is reminded of this when she re-encounters someone from her past: Maritza (Roberta Colindrez), a woman who's about her age, but whose desire for women and a life of her own choosing are at complete odds with Liliana's own situation. The two shared something when they were younger—a really close friendship? a fling? hot-and-heavy experimentation?—and neither has forgotten it, but rekindling that flame now is challenging. Though not, it should be pointed out, something they aren't willing to attempt, at least on the sly.

Factor in the fourth woman—Liliana's 25-year-old, hopelessly spoiled and entitled stepdaughter, Fabiola (Ana Nogueira), who's more than a little intrigued by Maritza's free-spirited nature—and you have a tasty tangle of romance, class, and obligation to unwind. Saracho and director Jerry Ruiz, who's provided a handsomely understated staging, don't disappoint, and keep the myriad complicated feelings and relationships well organized throughout. Though there is occasionally a sense that Saracho is ticking off various check boxes in defining her characters, she writes and plots smoothly enough that you seldom feel manipulated; these people may rarely, if ever, make good decisions, but they're always justifiable ones within their specific situations.

Saracho doesn't make many missteps along the way, but she makes a few. It's difficult to understand, for example, exactly what ignited the once-upon-a-time attraction between Liliana and Maritza, or what keeps it going now; Milans's rough-edged but elegant portrayal of Liliana seems at odds with the husky-voiced stolidity Colindrez presents as Maritza's defining outward trait, and the performers strain at establishing and maintaining chemistry with each other. And Maritza's lengthy discourse on the legend of Lilith, supposedly the headstrong first wife Adam abandoned in favor of the more submissive Eve, is self-consciously "stagey," and does not easily trip from the mouth of the clear-eyed and earthy independent type Colindrez has created.

If the physical production doesn't quite match Saracho's stylish swirl—Raul Abrego's set is a poor approximation of Liliana's lavish lifestyle, and Jen Schriever's lights underscore more of the story's latent darkness than is necessarily ideal—the performances go a long way toward filling in the gaps. This is especially true with Milans: She infuses Liliana with a dangerous, intelligent sexiness that prevents her from becoming the passive victim that the character could easily otherwise resemble. And her growth, from a hopelessly controlled wife to one who knows just what her own powers are, is completely convincing, and even a little bit scary, in the final scenes that survey the aftermath of everyone's choices.

Colindrez is not a tight fit for Maritza, and would benefit from showing how Maritza is affected by Liliana on a more emotional level, but she does well enough as a subdued figure of chaos disrupting Liliana's uneasy order. Marquez nicely cloaks maternal love within a harsh cloak, giving every line a dual-bladed meaning that lets her function as both the moral and the realistic center of Liliana's life. And Nogueira brings a spicy but loving energy to Fabiola that lets you see her as someone a bit deeper than a brat who throws a fit whenever she doesn't get what she wants.

The message of Mala Hierba, however, is that no one gets what they want all the time, so everyone here is in more or less the same boat, each differentiated from the others only by the ability to tolerate and adapt to changes as they occur. Perhaps Liliana does fulfill the translated title's description of her as a "bad seed," and Saracho successfully makes that case as Liliana struggles to pull herself up and improve her life by the standards of where she's come from as well as where she hopes to be going. But the play as a whole works because of how intently it looks at how a plant's roots, good and bad alike, both free it to grow and anchor it to the soil.

Mala Hierba
Through August 8
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
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