To refer to something as being “sitcom level” often has a negative connotation, which shouldn’t always be the case; sitcoms are a valid, valued form of entertainment. It’s just that what they set out to do – introduce a situation, develop and then resolve it within 22 minutes – can only accommodate so much within its limited storytelling framework. So when I refer to Chimichangas and Zoloft, Fernanda Coppel’s new play currently running at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, I don’t aim to insult it. Playwright Coppel certainly demonstrates a penchant for catchy but realistic dialogue. She’s working in the right genre. But she has yet to figure out exactly how to play within the size of her chosen sandbox.
Coppel has created five characters representing two Mexican-American Los Angeles families undergoing some major sea changes in their lives. Upon turning forty, Sonia (Zabryna Guevara), a depressive wife and mother, has abandoned husband Ricardo (Teddy Cañez) and daughter Jackie (Carmen Zilles). Jackie’s best friend, Penelope (Xochitl Romero), meanwhile, knows what it is like to grow up sans mother, having been raised by single dad Alejandro (Alfredo Narciso). Hyper-articulate and mis-educated, young teens Jackie and Penelope have to contend not only with changes in their family architecture but also with some weighty problems affecting their own immediate futures.
I won’t spoil any of Coppel’s plot points, which seem to come as surprises though they hew quite close to formula content. I will say, however, that Chimichangas – whose title alone shouts for humor – has been structured as a comedy and nimbly staged by talented director Jaime Castañeda as such, and this is ultimately an ill fit for a show that derails into very heavy subject matter regarding one’s identity and serious life choices. Chimichangas works best in its earliest scenes, when we first meet characters saying and doing relatively innocuous things. As the show continues, and more hugging, learning, and fighting occur, it becomes too glib. The size of these situations is bigger than the theatrical walls and running time really allow for.
However, the show’s remarkable cast navigates this rough terrain with aplomb, with a uniformly terrific attentiveness to the rhythms of Coppel’s firecracker dialogue and to Castañeda’s timing. Romero and Zilles are believable as teenagers and strike up the right combination of faux bravado and insecure angst, supplying the play with both its comedic funny bone and also its tender heart. Guevara, stuck punctuating each of Chimichangas’s chapters with unnecessary monologues that tell the audience what we need to know but provide further additional insight (for instance, what is Penelope’s deep connection to Sonya? And exactly what kind of a marriage did Ricardo and Sonya have?), nails her role; there isn’t a single inflection that isn’t totally justified.
Another problem with Chimichangas is that it is unclear exactly whose story is the central one. Is the young girls’? Sonya’s? Or does it belong to either Alejandro or Ricardo, played here by the powerhouse duo of Cañez’s appropriately rigid characterization and Narciso’s sadder, looser one? The two of them work so well in their scenes together and with the actresses who play their daughters that one is sorry they don’t have more stage time. Of course, that’s the problem with this overstuffed, occasionally amateurish play. Coppel hasn’t yet figured out that sometimes, less really is more.
Chimichangas and Zoloft
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street. Thru June 24. http://www.atlantictheater.org/page.aspx?id=12017143
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