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Off the Island

José Rivera asks: can love survive the loss of enchantment?

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"You can push emotional extremes," declares assumption 24 of José Rivera's essay "36 Assumptions About Writing Plays." "Be sexy. Be violent. Be irrational. Be sloppy. Be frightening. Be loud. Be stupid. Be colorful."

Rivera's Boleros for the Disenchanted, now at the Goodman, is all those things. It's also sentimental, inspirational, and very, very funny. Directed by Goodman artistic associate Henry Godinez—who also staged the world premiere last year at Yale Repertory Theatre—Rivera's romantic comedy is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense, catering to the audience's desire to be uplifted as well as entertained. Some of its mystical and religious aspects are questionable, and it sidesteps certain difficult questions, but few plays are as simultaneously illuminating, amusing, and touching.

Rivera has acknowledged that the script was inspired by his own parents—Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland in 1959, when Rivera was four. The first act, set on the island in the early 50s, charts how the heroine, Flora, meets husband-to-be Eusebio. A 22-year-old virgin, the straitlaced but feisty Flora breaks off her engagement to small-town slickster Manuelo because of his roving eye and his sexual double standard. ("Men are controlled by such desperate forces, Flora," declares Manuelo in one of the play's most beautifully structured and hilarious monologues. "I just hope you never experience them yourself!") Hoping to mend her broken heart, Flora visits relatives in San Juan's Santurce district (where Rivera was born). There she meets Eusebio, a 27-year-old national guardsman. With the encouragement of her cousin Petra, Flora and Eusebio fall in love, marry, and head for the so-called land of opportunity.

In leaving Puerto Rico, the couple incur the fury of Flora's father, Fermin. "Look at this land," he says in a rhapsodic and anguished soliloquy. "The richest on earth. Reach into any branch and feed yourself with the thickest, sweetest fruit. Now we send our food up north for next to nothing, and it comes back to us in expensive tin cans. And every day the best and the brightest get on airplanes to starve and freeze in New York, in Chicago." For Rivera, "disenchanted" doesn't merely mean disillusioned or dissatisfied; by leaving home, Flora and Eusebio uproot themselves from the enchanted isle that produced them. And any hope of preserving that magic is destroyed when Fermin pronounces a curse on Eusebio for taking away his daughter.

Act two finds the pair 39 years later, living in straitened circumstances in Alabama. Flora, still deeply religious, tends dutifully to Eusebio, now bedridden after losing both his legs to diabetes. Rivera explores the couple's commitment as Flora's Catholic faith is tested by revelations of Eusebio's past philandering and by the question of whether the sanctity of life is more important than its quality. Juxtaposing Christianity with occultism, Rivera suggests that Eusebio's medical problems might be the result of Fermin's curse, then introduces an invisible angel, who tells Eusebio—and Eusebio alone—of his impending death. The play fudges on whether these supernatural elements are meant to be taken seriously. And while the soap-opera issue of infidelity is treated as high drama, deep issues of life and death are resolved fairly easily. The feel-good message seems to be that love conquers all.

Yet Rivera's warmhearted spirit and rich writing carry the day. A former writer for sitcom king Norman Lear (he cocreated TV's first all-Hispanic comedy series, the short-lived A.K.A. Pablo), Rivera is equally skilled at snappy dialogue and complex, symbolic monologues. Boleros for the Disenchanted is never less than compelling to listen to, reflecting the second of Rivera's "36 Assumptions," that "theater is closer to poetry and music than it is to the novel." But the language always serves the characters, whose emotional and spiritual needs drive the story.

Rivera's ability to create character with words is especially important because the play is double-cast—a strategy that informs the story's development while offering the actors a chance to display their range in meaty multiple roles. René Rivera brilliantly portrays the two middle-aged male characters: turbulent, self-pitying, sometimes grandiose Fermin and the bed-bound older Eusebio, whose mischievous humor gradually crumbles under the weight of his medical problems. Entrancing as the young Flora, Elizabeth Ledo also plays Eve, a free-spirited nurse who takes care of the infirm older Eusebio while deftly evading his irrepressible flirtations. Sandra Marquez clearly distinguishes between her characters—Flora's mother, Milla, in act one and the older Flora in act two—though they're both middle-aged women committed to troubled husbands. ("Of course I love him," says Milla. "The way Jesus loved his cross.")

Charming as high-spirited Petra, Liza Fernandez is also sensitive as Monica, a member of older Flora's church. And Joe Minoso and Felix Solis—both holdovers from the play's 2008 Yale Rep mounting—are superb. The burly Minoso is sweetly shy as young Eusebio, exuberant as Monica's fiance; Solis is comic and touching as Manuelo, then appropriately grave as a priest called in to hear Eusebio's deathbed confession.

Linda Buchanan's set and Joseph Appelt's lighting add a hint of dreamlike surrealism, and Gustavo Leone's slow, sad boleros shimmer with the erotic and spiritual longings that infuse this irresistible play.   v

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