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Theater Review

Najera Writes Funny, Warm 'Love' Letter to His Family

May 16, 1997|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Rick Najera has come a long way since the 1980s, when Hollywood typecast the handsome, classically trained Latino actor as a Cuban drug lord in episodic TV.

He's getting the last laugh--literally--by lampooning typecasting and creating his own funny characters, first in the Latins Anonymous group and later in "The Pain of the Macho" and "Latinologues." His success with his own material led to TV writing jobs.

Now he's written himself a starring role in a promising show, "A Quiet Love," premiering at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

The show is frankly autobiographical, the story of Najera's family's three generations in San Diego, from dishwasher to scriptwriter. It opens with Najera, 32, as himself, arguing with his agent (one of three roles played with devastating wit by Lamont Thompson) about a raw deal he is being offered.

We segue to his family, which he is writing about on commission, just as he did on commission from the San Diego Rep for this play. To cement the story's reality, actual family photographs are projected over D Martyn Bookwalter's simple set, suggestive of Najera's parents' La Mesa home.

*

Under the direction of Rep co-founder and artistic consultant Douglas Jacobs, the ensemble is seldom less than smashing. And although the title, "A Quiet Love," refers to the bond between Najera's parents, it becomes clear that this is also Najera's love letter to his family. He bestows his funniest and most penetrating writing on his father, Ed (Henry Darrow); his mother, Mary (Catalina Maynard); and his illegal-bashing Aunt Sophie (Linda Castro).

His own part, however, lacks the clarity of the others. Najera's character alludes to romantic regrets he doesn't explain. We watch him arguing for a better money deal for his work but don't see what drives him to write. And the complaints about raw deals don't ring true in light of all his success.

The lack of self-revelation in his role is the main flaw in a flavorful, character-driven story. Darrow, a terrific character actor (real name: Enrique Tomas Delgado Jr. before he changed it), makes Ed larger than life with his warmth, wit, loyalty and love.

Maynard's Mary is irresistibly sweet and unassuming as she pleads with her son not to write about his "boring" family and instead to pick someone like Elizabeth Taylor because, after all, she is interesting. And Castro nails the best lines as Aunt Sophie, trying to explain the difference between the good illegals (family friends) and the bad ones (all the others).

It's a rich story, with succulent ingredients. With adjustments, it could prove as memorable for the audience as it clearly is for Najera.

* "A Quiet Love," San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.; May 14 and 28, 2 p.m. Ends June 1. (619) 544-1000.

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