SAN DIEGO — One of the major criticisms leveled at a lot of contemporary Latino theater in America has been its sentimentality--a tendency to write about tough issues or tough times with a nostalgic or romantic softness.
Ever since the early 1970s agitprop actos written by Luis Valdez (that were instinctually tough and very funny, but often crudely crafted), one has hoped for the advent of a real Latino playwright. "The Boiler Room," which opened Saturday at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, sends strong signals that one has arrived. His name is Reuben Gonzalez, and his instincts and his craft are on the money.
This self-admitted junior high dropout from Spanish Harlem (with a degree from Fordham), has written a lusty, tough-talking, wickedly penetrating account of growing up in a Spanish Harlem basement. It's a claustrophobic place shared by young Anthony (Juan del Castillo Jr.), his mother, Olga (Karmin Murcelo), and an ominous boiler that makes its own statement (coal dust) and its own relentless demands.
Anthony's a heartache--a street-smart truant, stripper of cars and superthief with an unstoppable mouth and tender heart who's learned early that he must fend for himself and ignore his mother's threats. In short, a survivor.
His mother's a survivor too, going nuts from too many basement apartments and too little money for too many years. Her husband, Miguel, the apartment house super, is gone ("to the store," she's been telling complaining tenants, "he had to take two trains, a bus and a ferry.")
The rough banter between her and Anthony (whom she promises to hit, abandon or kill with every other breath) is unsparing. These two thrive on a chaotic, darkly hilarious diet of insult and recrimination, yet you never doubt the interdependence--a kind of fond, deadly resentment. This layering of text and unspoken subtext is Gonzalez' craftiest achievement.
Into this skewed world arrives Olga's uppity, primping daughter, Olivia, (Allegra Swift) and her lawyer-husband Doug (Tim Donoghue), presumably to rent an apartment. It's an event that Olga's been wildly anticipating. She's counting on fleeing the boiler by moving in upstairs with them, even if it means turning out Anthony.
Life, of course, doesn't work out that way. Nothing is quite what it seems in this family of talented self-deceivers. How it does work out brims with pain and blistering humor and a ruthless, ultimately cauterizing honesty, which is the key to Gonzalez's talent.
The final, uplifting scene, in which mother and daughter, chastened by near tragedy, lay down their arms and level with each other is a gem of few words and clear meaning. It's stage use of body language at its best.
Murcelo's strong, pivotal performance as the mercurial Olga sets the tone and pace for this high-energy production, directed by Craig Noel with an uncommon mix of vigor and sensitivity.
Del Castillo Jr., age undeclared, looks about 12 and brings an unadorned directness to his portrayal of Anthony that makes the paradox of this savant child fully believable. He should, however, look to his speech, which is never phony, but too often too mushy to follow.
Nowhere is Gonzalez's quality as a writer more evident than in the character of Doug, a brief role so fully fleshed that it becomes a highlight of the play. It is beautifully rendered here by Donoghue.
Swift seamlessly completes the quartet as the complex, trim Olivia. Sets and lights by Kent Dorsey (the image of the regurgitating coal chute is indelible), costumes by Frank O. Bowers and sound design by Lucy Peckham are of the first water.
Gonzalez states in the Carter's program that he wrote "The Boiler Room" to "try to understand what the heck my crazy childhood was all about." He's done a lot better than that. He's dragged us, kicking and screaming, through it and made us understand it too.
Performances at the Old Globe complex in Balboa Park run Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2, until Jan. 17. (No shows Dec. 24, 25, 31.) Tickets: $17-$24; (619) 239-2255.