Los Angeles Theater Review: AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSÉ (Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City)

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by Tony Frankel on March 17, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Juan José, a Mexican cop sick of being on-the-take, has crossed the border in search of citizenship, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Panicking over flash cards while studying for his U.S. citizenship exam, Juan falls asleep and the rest of this 90 minute, intermissionless, astoundingly uneven cavalcade of skits, jokes and parodies attempts to poke fun at America’s tortured past, especially in regards to immigration.

American Night Photo 5In trademark Culture Clash fashion, the broad characters in American Night: The Ballad of Juan José are reminiscent of Burlesque and Saturday Night Live (all except the understated René Millán as Juan). While you may have a few laughs and be treated to a sterling cast, adroit design team and smart direction by Jo Bonney, this puerile, liberal, pun-groaning, politically-correct, narrow-minded, victim-mentality voyage of slapstick ends up being as thought-provoking as an average Family Guy episode. The intention of writer Richard Montoya can be summed up in his line, “America sucks, but it swallows.” You will learn absolutely nothing from this outing that isn’t already jettisoned across the nightly news and social blogs: life sucks for American immigrants, be they Chinese, Mexican, or fill-in-the-blank. If there was a point to this evening, it escaped me entirely. Even with its juvenile humor, American Night would have been truly exciting in 1984, when Culture Clash was founded, but now it just feels like Sesame Street for immigration issues. While this show’s topics make it almost critic-proof (God forbid we should say anything bad about a show that tackles such sensitive issues), those who wish that this leftist Vaudeville routine would actually delve into what compels immigrants to be U.S. citizens have no reason to cross the border into the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

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However, those who love to watch a finger-pointing historical slideshow of America’s shameful behavior – from the KKK to the Tea Party – may enjoy some of the bawdy characterizations (such as Ben Franklin and Bob Dylan). To be fair, there were a few uproarious moments; with Montoya’s regurgitating style of humor, something’s got to land. But the insipid buffoonery prevailed: Lewis and Clark’s exit lines are as follows: “I’m so hungry, I could eat a beaver whole,” followed by, “I love beaver hole!” I definitely appreciated the few moments that went for poignancy, but if the main intention was to festoon the stage with a kaleidoscopic display of sketches lampooning immigration, I could have used a lot more rubber chickens, or should I say, pollos de plástico?

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At Manzanar, the internment camp for Japanese citizens during WWII, the displays in the visitor center help interpret history by giving both sides of the story. American Night only gives one side of the story, and to be honest, the attempted seriousness in the Manzanar section didn’t jibe with a show that doesn’t take itself seriously to begin with.

photos by Craig Schwartz

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
Center Theatre Group
co-produced with the La Jolla Playhouse
Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City
ends on April 1, 2012
for tickets, visit CTG

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