Theater Review: THE PLAY YOU WANT (Road Theatre)

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by Marc Wheeler on March 14, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


What starts as a joke ends in a laugh — all the way to the bank! — in The Play You Want, a world premiere comedy by Bernardo Cubría. Directed by Michael John Garcés, the play is a product of The Road Theatre Company’s playwriting workshop, Under Construction. I don’t know their formula, but whatever’s happening in this new work incubator at The Road is clearly working: The Play You Want opens its 30th Anniversary Season with a bang. It follows Mexican playwright Bernardo (a fictionalized version of the playwright himself, it’s assumed) who in a moment of frustration writes and pitches a work so embarrassingly stereotypically Mexican he can’t imagine it would actually — oh wait! — it just sold. And we’re off to the racists! … I mean, races … in this outrageous satire.

Jonathan Nichols, Christopher Larkin and Natalie Llerena

While the playwright (the real one, not the character) says this piece is intended to “confront the institutional racism of American Theatre,” it actually seems to clobber all the recent efforts by theaters nationwide to “rectify” it — that’s what’s so deliciously savage about it. Bernardo (both in real life and in this fictionalized satire) comes out swinging against the White Fragility evangelists with the best weapon he has: comedy. In doing so, he plays the fool to the king and walks away crowned.

Natalie Llerena and Peter Pasco
I don’t know how else to say it, Cubría’s play is just plain fun. Remember fun? It might be making a comeback. Yes, the work tackles a heavy “hot-button” issue of the day — institutional racism, wheeeee! — but it brings in more than a wacky dollop of The Producers in doing so. After walking on eggshells for so long, it’s nice to collectively laugh at the absurd ways we handle our own absurdity. Fortunately, The Road has more respect for its audience than to indicate with a sign, like a current play in town, when it’s “okay” for its audiences to laugh so they won’t appear “racist.” You think I’m kidding? It gets worse. Such a sentiment was even featured in a recent L.A. Times commentary by Inda Craig-Galván, a black female playwright who was upset by the “loud, bold and inappropriate laughter” from a white audience who “laughed at the parts that weren’t funny” in Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. Oof.
Natalie Llerena and Peter Pasco

Luckily, the fantastic cast here offers us plenty of which to playfully skewer. In the role of Bernardo, the bright-eyed Peter Pasco is an absolute delight, wincing his way through his ever-evolving horror show of circumstances. We feel his pain as he wrestles with selling out when his ridiculous “Latinx” play gets both a reading at The Public Theatre and, thanks to controversial producer Scott Rudin (a slithering Stewart J. Zully), a golden chance for a Broadway run. The play confronts Bernardo’s emotional turmoil by incorporating larger-than-life personalities to act as guides or foils to his moral dilemma. Broadway and Disney darling Lin-Manuel Miranda (a satisfying Roland Ruiz) offers his two-pennies, alongside plenty of Hamilton jokes. And film and TV actor Gilbert Cruz (Jonathan Nichols) sheds light on how he managed to make it in Hollywood as a Latino actor. Other appearances are made by Jennifer “J.Lo” Lopez (Natalie Llerena), Gloria Estefan (Presciliana Esparolini), and in a secondary role for Nichols that garners plenty of laughs, a thick British-accented Alfred Molina.

Stewart J. Zully and Peter Pasco

While the play is mostly a satirical look at Bernardo’s artistic ventures as a struggling playwright, it’s balanced with a more sentimental glimpse at his personal life with his child (played by a puppet) and his wife (a down-to-earth, yet frustrated Chelsea Gonzalez). While tone slightly shifts in these scenes, they offer a nice breather from the mayhem. “The play you want” in The Play You Want is clearly a reference to the play-within-a-play Bernardo offers to American Theater’s white liberals like red meat. Supporting such a work, the play argues, is their way of patting themselves on the back for liking “ethnic” art, especially when it involves such a heart-tugging issue like brown kids in cages. (Pass the Kleenex!) Cubría is spot-on in his portrayal of the NPR-loving theater crowd who want everyone to know they’re “doing the work.”

Presciliana Esparolini

What isn’t so clear is whether or not Cubría intends The Play You Want to also be the play he thinks The Road’s audiences want. (Ooh, “meta”!) If that’s his vision, however, it isn’t as clear. But it’s a compelling question for audiences, nonetheless. The only potential “meta” moment I’m curious about is in having an Asian actor (Christopher Larkin) play white theater director Sam Gold. Because this appears to be the only instance of an actor playing across race (it’s hard to keep track), it was confusing; although, perhaps director Garcés is trying to make a statement. Because Larkin comes back to play Asian director-playwright Chay Yew, however, it’s more likely that practicality, not meta-theatrics, is at play here.

If you need a good laugh — and who doesn’t? — I suggest you head right away to The Road for this biting satire. Sure, the work is clearly on a budget. The barebones set by Brian Graves is functional for the intimate space and provides a great canvas for Nicholas Santiago’s comical projections. But set design isn’t important here — ”the play’s the thing,” says Hamlet. While the work offers more questions than answers, and more opportunities for “inappropriate laughter” than some theatergoers might care for, the playwright and The Road are in on the joke. In this dead-serious, “cancel culture” climate, The Play You Want is the play we need. If we’re lucky — if art actually can make a difference in shaping public discourse — this lighthearted fare might just get our collective conversation moving in a healthier direction. If not, mis amigos, enjoy the sign-free, “no permission needed” laughs while you can.

photos by Elizabeth Kimball

The Play You Want
The Road Theatre Company
Road Theatre at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2 thru April 3, 2022 (dark March 25-27)
then continues in rep, Thurs, April 7 at 8; then Sat at 2pm & Sun at 7:30pm thru April 17
ends on April 17, 2022 EXTENDED to June 19, 2022
for tickets and play rep info, call 818.761.8838 or visit Road Theatre

Ticket prices are $39; Students and Seniors are $15.00; Previews are $15.00. Sunday Performances are Pay-What-You-Can. Three Play Season Pass is $75.00. Special group rates available for parties of 8 or more.

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