René Buch first staged Isaac Chocrón’s O.K. at Repertorio Español in 1974 — six years after he and producer Gilberto Zaldivar founded the theater and five years after the prolific Venezuelan penned the piece. In the ensuing 33 years, one would think the play might have lost its bite. I wasn’t around in ’74 to compare, but the current production, part of Repertorio Español’s Jewish Latin-American Theatre Festival, has pretty sharp teeth.
O.K. contains a lot of talking and not much doing. And the talking is great. The characters spend their time dueling with words and negotiating deals that blur the lines between business and love. In short, Mina (Zully Montero), a middle-aged seamstress, lives with her younger stud, the unemployed Franco (Gil Ron), whom she seduced 15 years previously, when he was 18. Enter middle-aged-woman- number-two, Ángela (Isabel Moreno), a widow who rakes in tons of cash through the gas station she owns. Ángela falls for Franco. Franco falls for Ángela. Mina loves Franco. Franco loves Mina. The women negotiate a deal.
Act two opens in a seemingly alternate universe, Mina’s dingy, empty apartment exchanged for a gleaming penthouse where, we learn, the three have lived together for a year. The second act also wends through bickering and wit, love and jealously and deception, towards the negotiation of a new financial-personal deal, this one a settlement of sorts. Frankly, the second act dragged in places, mostly from an excess of bickering. The zingers lose a bit of their zing when they come too often.
But Buch’s staging complements well the revelations that arise and the surprising, yet real, people that Chocrón has sculpted out of the mostly entertaining whirlwind of dialogue. The first act sports a bare stage, except for a few sad-looking chairs and a backdrop of bed-sheets. The change after intermission to the dazzling, almost surreal penthouse — complete with huge white columns and a grand window in back open to the star-spattered night sky — opens a space for questions about the myriad possibilities of our lives and how quickly and drastically they can change — even on a scale so small as the loves and money of three insignificant people.
The actors sparkle as those insignificant people. Ron, the greenest of the group, still can boast an impressive resume, though he surely must draw some actors’ anger because he looks like a bit of a meat-head. But it serves him well as Franco, and he broadcasts a naivete with these two more experienced actresses that makes him somehow endearing, smarmy, and doltish at the same time.
But the women rule this roost. Moreno and Montero — both Cuban-born — have had long careers on TV in Latin America, and each has done a sprinkling of films. Moreno started her career in Soy Cuba and played in several other notable films before leaving the island. You might recognize Montero from Cape Fear, of all things, and El Súper. The two of them battle it out for Franco, for money, and for happiness and create an interesting back and forth that is neither all hate nor all love. And when they play at imitating each other in the second act, they finally get to blow the roof off the place.
But the more restrained moments make for the most interesting theater. Montero in particular has an uncanny ability to hold a tension and exist on several levels at once, often luring us to try to determine Mina’s true intentions. She rarely seems to be performing and yet has the sharpest, biggest presence on stage. Plus, she’s really sexy. It’s not just her looks (though they don’t hurt). She moves with the poise of actors of years gone by, graceful outside but on fire inside. It’s a wonder to watch.
Unfortunately, that wonderful tension that holds the play back from cheesy melodrama breaks at the very end. The self-awareness that has kept the wit alive slips out; the swooning music mounts; the lights dim; and Mina and Franco turn a bit telenovela. I understand the idea behind it, but the attempt to show Mina’s genuine, earnest side as the end of her “character arc” just tries a bit too hard. A slightly defter touch might have avoided it. I know T.S. Eliot is poetic-enemy-number-one in Latin America, but he did have a point about how the world ends. (With a whimper.)
Regardless, the play works — and it certainly entertains. Don’t see this show if you don’t like audible audience reactions — and the occasional interference from people who have trouble working the translation headphones. (Side note: The translators needed some help. One man and one woman read for the three characters, with the man playing Franco and one of the women, which was a tad confusing. And at times they seemed to be reading the script without listening to what the actors were saying, sometimes reading a line or two ahead — as I heard from the headphones of the woman in front of me.)
Buch and Chocrón make a good team — as one would expect from two such veterans of their crafts — and they put good people on the stage. But it puzzled me that in a niche festival (Jewish Latin American), Repertorio has put on a play that doesn’t deal with that niche thematically. Is that half-assing it? Or is it moving beyond once-necessary categorizations of “Jewish playwrights” (and “women playwrights,” “gay playwrights,” etc.), so they can be, finally, simply, “playwrights”?