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american (tele)visions

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 29, 2022

Raúl Castillo, Clew, Bianca b Norwood and Elia Monte-Brown
Photo by Joan Marcus
american (tele)visions, Victor I. Cazares's new play, in a premiere production at New York Theatre Workshop, is a kaleidoscope, an ever-shifting dazzlement of colors, patterns, shapes, multimedia, and immigrant voices. Some of it is impressive. Some of it is intriguing. And much of it is incoherent.

It's not a big play, but it seems one, what with Theater Mitu's overpowering "technology design." Something's going on every second, from projections to VHS video to video games to sound effects to Bretta Gerecke's ever-shifting scenic design (two sets of two large cubes stacked vertically, each opening and closing to reveal a doublewide trailer living room, a Walmart toy aisle, an 18-wheeler, etc.). And, around them, always something flashing, popping, buzzing. (Whoever's handling all the sound and light and video cues must be exhausted.) A lot of this audiovisual feast is diverting. That is, it diverts us from the story.

Cazares gives us plenty to chew on. You know the playwright will be indicting capitalism from the moment you walk in, with one single New Agey musical note occasionally interrupted by... commercials. Among the first of the countless projections we see is a wall of 1970s black-and-white portable TVs, the sort presumably purchased and doted on by the immigrant family we meet. Octavio (Raúl Castillo) was the first to cross the border, a Mexican dad of traditional sexual attitudes and prejudices. He eventually brought over Maria (Ella Monte-Brown), his attentive but argumentative wife, and their two kids, teenage Alejandro (Clew), who evidently is a ghost, and preteen Erica (Bianca "b" Norwood), who does a lot of the narrating. Alejandro had a boyfriend, the Vietnamese Jesse (also Clew), who remained in their home after Alejandro's passing. The two worked and met at, unsubtle metaphor alert, a factory that made chain link fences.

Erica's best friend Jeremy (Ryan J. Haddad) is a quite effeminate older boy, and the two indulge in a variety of leisure pursuits and adventures: playing primitive video games, fondling Barbie dolls, watching voluminous television in the family's trailer and at the Walmart (which, according to Cazares's whimsical stage directions, has "been open for an eternity"), and riffing on the superhero TV series they dote on. It's a full meal for these young actors. They're up to it. Norwood is a remarkable young actor–forceful, funny, a vocal chameleon, and perfectly at home in Cazares's intricate speeches.

Meantime, there's plenty more going on in that doublewide. Maria is carrying on with a Walmart truck driver and will abandon her husband and children for him. There will be more death. And each of the family will retreat increasingly into the massive entertainment options of the day, the telenovelas and Nintendo and trips to the mall. Indeed, one of the author's essential points seem to be that, in an environment where all is diversion, that diversion is going to pull a family unit apart.

But the way Cazares and director Ruben Polendo stress that is that they keep throwing more at us–more projections, noises, costumes. (One, by "specialty costume" designer Mondo Guerra–Gerecke did the others–depicts Maria as "Wal-Martina," the shapely figure of capitalism, in a black-and-white gown topped by a hair bow of a giant UPC code. It's a riot. So is Jeremy's getup as Miroslava, the Meteor Fairy. Don't ask.) It's like neither Cazares nor Polendo trusted us to focus on mere human problems and emotions, so they opened up their toy box and spilled everything out onto the floor. Metatheatrical? You bet, but not in a way that illuminates the text, or explains the message.

Cazares can write poetically: Maria describes her affair as "18 wheels of misfortune, commerce and ecstasy," and at the Walmart checkout, "It's like judgment day, every item an event, a deed, a sin, something to be justified to the gods of consumption." There's a mysterious leitmotif about a "night that stayed bright" and much discussion of the difference between a meteor and a meteorite. Some of this is quite tangy. And some is overwriting.

Really, this play is one overloaded Walmart shopping cart. Also on display: gay porn, lost TV remotes, broken VCRs, actors on videocam, well-deserved salutes to the immigrant work ethic, extended fantasy sequences, and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's wild lighting design, which accentuates the many other visual effects. The unbilled sound design is elaborate, but the bare, reverberating walls of Gerecke's set swallow up a fair amount of dialogue.

The actors are fine, though Clew, called upon to portray both Alejandro and his Vietnamese lover, differentiates them so little that sometimes it's hard to tell which one they are. Castillo is a solid, brutish patriarch, Monte-Brown a poised mom who ably negotiates some of Cazares's most pronounced verbal excess, and Haddad a skilled purveyor of some well-worn gay stereotypes. They sure are kept busy, and occasionally we can glimpse, among so many stimuli, a quiet, sympathetic portrait of the immigrant pursuit of a warped American dream. But then there's another animation, another video game, whatever.

American (tele)visions doesn't lack for imagination. In fact, it may have too much of it. Cazares is bursting to tell us of their history, the indignities they suffered, how they are the product of an overstimulative popular culture. Would it be too much to ask, amid all the bells and whistles, for a little more straightforward storytelling?

american (tele)visions
Through October 16, 2022
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: or call 212-460-5475.