A boy meets a girl. They hate each other at first, hurling insults at each other profusely, but gradually come to see each other’s finer points as another guy’s tension builds, the air crackles with each other. electricity and voila, they kiss and fall in love. It’s the bread and butter of countless romantic comedies.
Aunt Julia and the screenwriter now playing at the Main Street Theater falls squarely into this genre, except that its characters are based on the first real-life marriage of famed writer and Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas-Llosa who himself romanticized it in his book of the same title. Playwright Caridad Svich delivered this theatrical adaptation, in Spanish and English versions, commissioned by New York-based Repertorio Español. It was the first in English.
The story begins with young Mario (Ricardo Hernandez-Morgan) caught up in his law studies and his job as a journalist in the news department of a radio station in 1954 in Lima, Peru. He sits at the kitchen table and talks with his Aunt Olga (Marissa M. Castillo) and Uncle Lucho (Michael L. Benitez, who also plays radio actor Francisco) trying to help him. to organize their future.
Bad staging gives us an annoying start. For minutes, most of the many people seated on the west side of the theater are only entitled to the back of Mario’s head. He speaks; we have no idea what either track looks like. Finally, recently divorced and visiting Julia (Amanda Martinez) walks into the room and there is movement. The static setting is one that gets returned to periodically in the game and could have been resolved at least in part by a repositioning of the table or a decision to have Mario get up and walk around much earlier than him.
Julia arrives wearing an open kimono robe with a red scarf covering the curlers in her hair. She’s 32, just got divorced, and came from Bolivia to stay with Mario’s parents to pull herself together and date a number of men to shamelessly find another husband. She belittles Mario by calling him “Mariocito”, the derivative commonly attached to children, and calls him a baby. Predictably, he is outraged and responds in kind. He finds her “disgusting” and wants her gone.
Next, we see Mario meet up with his longtime best friend Javier (Leandro Salazar in an impressive and believable performance) who criticizes his writing. Mario, we understand, wants to go beyond dry reporting and write compelling fiction, telling stories to capture the imagination. Javier, a poet who practically admits he’ll never be very good at his job and earns a degree in economics, urges Mario to avoid hackneyed, sappy phrases.
Enter Pedro Camacho (Armando Gonzalez) who, depending on your personal preference, is the best or one of the grittier parts of the play. He is the extraordinary writer brought from Bolivia to help the radio station at a time – the pre-television at home – when radio broadcasts were still king (although the arrival of televisions already in America hides in a near future.)
Pedro initially disdains speaking with Mario but eventually becomes his mentor while sprouting all sorts of aphorisms about the art of writing and what it takes to give up to serve the muse to reach its highest potential. In fact, throughout the play, several characters besides Pedro (primarily Lucho and Mario) make frequent reference to the writings and words of the French novelist Balzac and the Greek philosopher Plutarch in making their case for the time.
It appears, however, that Pedro, gifted as he is, is beyond eccentric when it comes to the screenplays he writes and his tolerance (or rather lack thereof) for the two radio actors Francisco and Josefina ( Adriane Miller) responsible for delivering her lines. The only person he genuflects at least once is station manager Genaro (Michael Sifuentes) who is caught in the gastrointestinal midpoint between his announcers and a writer of increasingly salacious and outrageous stories that the listening audience loves it. Francisco and Josefina, providing the comic relief, are the station’s longtime voice actors who are appalled and take issue with the sordid nature of the characters they are forced to play and Pedro’s frequent accusations of “dirty Argentines”. .
As the play develops, Mario spends more and more time with Julia, accompanying her to the movies and spending hours talking with her. Torn between his two mentors: Julia (in a relationship they keep secret from his aunt and uncle) and an increasingly maniacal Pedro who, despite this, seems to hold the key to wisdom to become a famous writer, Mario trying to figure out the best next steps in his life. Everything is going according to plan – although why Julia returns to call Mario a baby late in the play seems like a false note even if she can warn him against it.
The costumes are wonderful. After the opening scene which clearly establishes Julia as a bit lost after the breakdown of her marriage, she arrives in one gorgeous dress after another, indicating that she is now on her game. is clean. And the detail of putting Pedro, described as a tiny man, in a suit far too big for him to have his sleeves down to his fingertips, is costume genius.
The actors are enthusiastic and hit their marks with very few muffled lines. They periodically break the fourth wall – mainly Mario – to advance the story and explain their inner thoughts. Hernandez-Morgan as Mario clearly expresses the naivety of a young man searching for his place in the world, sometimes in excruciating ways. Martinez as Julia is radiant and practical, unafraid to shock Lucho and Olga with references to the sexuality and prowess of some of her many suitors.
As Pedro, Gonzalez shouts out his lines so much that, much like a family fight at home, a listener begins to hear the single note as nothing more than an unwelcome, uncomprehending noise. His advice on writing becomes pedantic lectures. However, his last full meltdown at the station while on the air is very entertaining. Never has the word “panties” had so much meaning.
The piece is simply too long. Opening night was not helped by a technical error (a circuit breaker problem) in the second act that crippled the entire company for a few minutes. Including the intermission, it lasted just under three hours and was not helped by frequent and sometimes lengthy scene changes. If you’re going to ask for that many scene changes, for God’s sake, find a way to execute them faster. The use of lighting is also problematic; sometimes we were treated to klieg lamps which, while making it easier to take notes, didn’t serve the production well.
There is a good story here and the play itself may entice viewers to read Mario Vargas-Llosa’s book. It was his first marriage, the one to his aunt (“no relation!) so we know what the end will be. more nuance in online delivery would help.
So cut a few lines. Reduce the time spent on these scene changes. But by all means, keep the robes.
Performances are scheduled through June 5 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Main Street Theater – Rice Village, 2540 Time Boulevard. Proof of a negative COVI test within 48 hours or a vaccination record are required. Masks are recommended but not required. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $55.