Sonny Villa (Alex Valdivia), center, explains his to his mother, Connie… (Ed Krieger )
In 1986, when Luis Valdez’s play “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges” premiered in Los Angeles, its portrait of an upwardly mobile Latino family in Monterey Park shattered Hollywood stereotypes.
Buddy Villa wasn’t a bandito or a gardener, Connie Villa wasn’t a madam or a maid — they just played them in the movies, earning enough as extras to send their daughter to medical school and their son, Sonny, the play’s troubled, troubling protagonist, to Harvard.
Casa 0101’s affectionate revival, 25 years after the last L.A. production of “Badges,” is compelling not only historically, as a benchmark for how opportunities for Latinos on stage and screen have developed (not as much as one might have hoped), but also artistically.
It’s not a flawless tour de force: The storytelling falls apart in the second act, the pace of many scenes could be stepped up and the perspective is often confusingly suspended between realism and satire.
But Valdez’s warm characterizations and playful meta-theatricality give director Hector Rodriguez and his energetic cast many opportunities to provoke laughter, discomfort and inspiration.
Daniel E. Mora is bluff and charming as Buddy Villa, a burly, middle-aged bit actor whose biggest claim to fame is having appeared in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” somewhere behind Alfonso Bedoya — the actor who so indelibly snarled at Humphrey Bogart, “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”
Buddy and his wife, Connie (the endearing Carmelita Maldonado), are grumpily reconciled to their marginalized careers. (“Another Mexican whore?” Buddy asks Connie about a new part. “Of course not. She’s Costa Rican,” replies Connie.) Their solace is that this work has provided their children the “badges” they will need to thrive in Anglo culture.
So they’re perplexed when Sonny (the dreamy-eyed Alex Valdivia) shows up unexpectedly with plans to drop out of Harvard and become a filmmaker. Sonny has brought home a Japanese American dancer (the quirky, easy-on-the-eyes Elizabeth Pan), whose role is mostly to look on sympathetically as he engages in increasingly self-destructive behavior, apparently to rouse his parents.
Although the plot veers sharply, and unpersuasively, into melodrama at this point, the ending redeems the more bewildering moments, turning Sonny’s journey into an incisive comment on the relationship between the movies and life.
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“I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges,” Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights. 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 10. $20. (323) 263-7684 or www.casa0101.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.