On the heels of an election in which strong Latino support is widely credited with helping President Barack Obama seal the deal, Matthew Paul Olmos' play about the troubled border — literal and cerebral — between the United States and Mexico could hardly be timelier. But although the play is packed with arresting images and fervent ideas, neither Olmos' script for "I Put the Fear of Mexico in 'Em" nor Teatro Vista's world-premiere staging by Ricardo Gutierrez feels completely mapped out.
The major problem is that the essential underpinning of the narrative feels contrived. Efren (Miguel Nunez) and Juana (Charin Alvarez) have taken American tourists Jonah (Bryn Packard) and Adray (Cheryl Graeff) hostage in a Tijuana alley. It transpires that the Mexican couple's teenage son, Javier, has fallen in love with Jonah and Adray's daughter, Angela , back in the United States — though it's never entirely clear how Javier ended up in suburban Los Angeles without his parents, nor, for that matter, how Efren and Juana knew how to recognize Jonah and Adray in a crowd.
Enraged that their attempts to approach Angela's parents on a Tijuana street have been rebuffed, the Mexican couple decide to make the Americans confront their prejudices. This includes Juana's taking Jonah at gunpoint to a sleazy bar, where he is forced to down tequila shots while wearing a cartoonish sombrero, while back in the alley Efren taunts Adray about her sex life and makes her dance to a mariachi musician. It all feels a bit like what would happen if Robert Rodriguez did a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
The overall feeling is of a bad fever dream. Olmos does a terrific job when the story moves across the border to outline the increasingly bittersweet one-day romance between the kids (played by two different pairs of the adult actors at various points). The most emotionally affecting moment involves a young single mother and pole-dancer, Vivia (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who meets Jonah at the bar, introduces him to a drug dealer (Marvin Quijada) and then makes her own life-altering trip over the border.
But the chilling intensity of Vivia's story gets lost in the increasingly histrionic recriminations between the Mexican and American couples. Despite some extremely sharp dialogue and high-energy performances, Olmos doesn't allow enough room for the characters to grow much beyond our initial impressions of them as fish-out-of-water Americans and mad-as-hell-with-some-justification Mexican citizens.
Olmos goes back and forth between upending cultural stereotypes and slyly exploiting them, but the tension between those competing impulses grows slack by the end of the play. Still, when the show works, it provides an excoriating portrait of the fears and resentments that have taken root along the border — and of our inability to find common ground for the sake of the next generation.
When: Through Dec. 9
Where: Teatro Vista at ¿Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-599-9280 or teatrovista.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun