Theater Review: DEATH AND COCKROACHES (Chalk Repertory Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on November 10, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


Playwright Eric Reyes Loo wisely observes that the messiness of love and grief does not easily coexist within the binary world of Facebook. In his new play, Death and Cockroaches, a Chalk Repertory Theatre presentation at the Atwater Village Theatre, he explores the tectonic changes his family experienced in real life as his father was dying. Now, on the anniversary of his death, Mr. Reyes Loo often posts a picture of his dad and a few words about him. The comments often run in the vein of, “Your father was so lucky to have a son like you.” It is a well-meaning response that means everything, and nothing, given the complexities and contradictions of their relationship.

Reyes Loo is a gay “Chexican,” (half Chinese, half Mexican). He explores these intersections in surprising ways, giving a metaphorical cockroach literal expression and playfully linking cultural oppression to his own libido. He is self-deprecating at times but never puts himself down, even when he gets a little intoxicated telling us about his love of cocks, or when he calls himself out for his own frailties.

As the play opens, the character Eric (Sunil Malhotra) marvels at the creative freedom the playwright Eric feels. “I never put myself in a play before,” he says, grinning mischievously, “I’ve never written a character who talks like me. So inappropriately.” Then, as if to prove his point, he gleefully rattles on about cocks. He prefers white, circumcised guys but insists that doesn’t mean he loves his oppressor or has submissive tendencies. The heart wants what it wants, or in this case, the mouth wants what it wants: a cut, white dick.

Eric is a struggling television writer in Los Angeles, scared that with his twenties behind him, the future he dreams of might be evaporating. He learns that Dad (Kelvin Han Yee) has been taken to the hospital and diagnosed with congestive heart failure and kidney damage. Mom (Eileen Galindo) is not coping well. Nor can he count on his younger brother, Pat (Justin Huen), a new father with a job and responsibilities in Portland.

Dad and Eric contemplate one another as if from separate species. Dad is Chinese, once hard-working, but now unemployed for ten years because he “couldn’t be bothered to get off his ass and get a job.” Yet Dad nags Eric to give up his writing dreams and get real work. At the hospital Eric has a hard time learning about Dad’s condition. The doctor (Claudia de Vasco) is brusque. “Google it,” she says, “It’s all in Google. They can explain it better than I can.” Dad is no help. “I’m fine. Doctors exaggerate.”

Mom is confused. She works two jobs and is exhausted much of the time. She may have slept a little when the doctor was talking, and she forgets his medications and what he can and cannot eat, but she resents any suggestion that’s she is neglectful. On the phone, Eric and Pat struggle to understand. What if she wants to kill him? How could someone who raised us be so inept?

Eric is torn. His inner world is sometimes more real to him than regular life, but circumstances now call for active involvement. He steps up, only to have it thrown back in his face by both Mom and Pat when he insists on moving in and hiring a home healthcare worker. Eric never cared about his father before he was dying, so why does he care so much now?

“Because the alternative is to let him die alone covered in his own shit.”

Eric will not let that happen, but he is pragmatic about his reasons. Compassion for his father isn’t the only guiding force. If he abandons his parents in their hour of need, there will be no way back for him with his mom or his brother. It is a time of harsh reality. Eric needs a shot of fantasy. A cockroach in buff, cuddly, hot human form fits the bill. Cockroach and Eric take turns narrating the journey, forming a funny, loving, and ultimately quite moving partnership.

Stylistically, the play ping-pongs happily between naturalism and surrealism, and Reyes Loo skillfully navigates the ebb and flow. He creates powerful moments of love and poetry in father and son talking about cheeseburgers and root beer; in a mother contemplating whether to share her chips with the woman who cleans her husband after he pisses himself in bed; in brothers who end each phone call uncertain whether the other wants to keep talking.

Director Jennifer Chang’s staging is elegant, emotionally coherent, and well-paced. She keeps the momentum building but never rushes things, allowing for moments between dialogue to fully develop and take root. The design team makes the barebones space feel specific and richly detailed with deft, theatrical slight-of-hand, and scenic designer Sarah Krainin’s wall of glory holes and cocks is a comic delight.

The cast is terrific. Sunil Malhotra is like an impish little boy at first, thrilled that he can say naughty words on stage, but he believably finds Eric’s maturity and wisdom. Kelvin Han Yee perfectly captures Dad’s irascibility. When he turns to his wife and helplessly asks why he is sick, and she is not, you feel the power of his desperation and shame. As Mom, Eileen Galindo suffuses the character with the fogginess of unspoken terror. In every line and gesture, you see the love, bargains, and compromises that make up this marriage between a Chinese man and a Mexican woman who do not see the world through the same eyes.

Justin Huen embraces Eric’s brother, Pat’s authentic, maddening inconsistencies. Pat wants Eric to accept the truth about their father’s situation, yet when confronted with that truth, always responds with some variation of, “I didn’t know it was that bad.” Yes, he did. You know he did. He knows too but cannot acknowledge it. In the dual role of the doctor and home healthcare worker, Vera, Claudia de Vasco shines. She is smart and funny as the doctor who refuses to be present or deal directly with the family, even as she is judgmental and offers impossible suggestions. As Vera, she creates a bond with Mom that is as deep and real as it is temporary.

Walter Belenky’s first entrance as Cockroach is in just underpants and goggles. That he is adorable is not beside the point. Cockroach must be magnetic, almost hypnotic in his ability to draw Eric and the audience in. Mr. Belenky certainly checks off those boxes. Yet it is his sensitivity and physical grace that allows the metaphor of a cockroach to grow into a kind of sly profundity.

Eric Reyes Loos has written a wonderful play. That he reveals so much about himself is the sort of thing people think of as “brave.” And it is. But what’s braver is doing the work that makes it possible to explore such personal things so effectively. And by “the work,” I don’t mean psychological or emotional reflection. I mean the writing itself. Nothing about the writing here feels random or scattershot, even when the character Eric is at his silliest. It takes years of practice to make a play feel this effortless.

photos by Peter Wylie

Death and Cockroaches
Chalk Repertory Theatre
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on December 1, 2018
for tickets, call 323.379.9583 or visit Chalk Rep

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