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A CurtainUp Review
Tell Hector I Miss Him
By Charles Wright

. . . tell Hector I miss him. Tell him we all miss him here . . . Salsa and this place will never be the same without him. — El Mago indulging a drugged-up fantasy of talking to the dead in Paola Lazaro's Tell Hector I Miss Him
Tell Hector
Juan Carlos Hernandez as Mostro and Selenis Leyva as Samira (Photo: Ahron R. Foster).
For all of the first scene in Paola Lazaro's new play Tell Hector I Miss Him, the stage is empty. From behind the set comes a burst of importunate pillow talk. A woman's voice pleads, in a cascade of phrases that can't be reproduced here, for rough sex; then a man responds (also in phrases inappropriate for this screen), his voice at a lower decibel, less agitated, though not without passion. And to round off this strictly aural first episode, a series of wordless moans and howls and exclamations. Finally, then, silence.

Plays in New York have featured increasingly racy dialogue for a long time, but Tell Hector I Miss Him gets down-and-dirty without delay. Lazaro's opening doesn't just capture the audience's attention (though it does that with vigor), it also poses a mystery. There's no way immediately to determine who among the 12 cast members (half men, half women) may have been speaking (if "speaking" is the appropriate term), and a spectator can't help spending much of the play's first act puzzling over that.

But there's more that's perplexing here than the question of who was panting all those sweet-and-spicy nothings — plenty, in fact, to keep one straining to connect the dots throughout much of the nearly two and half hours of the performance. Commissioned by the Atlantic Theater Company and developed, in part, at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Lazaro's play is a mosaic of scenes, seemingly unrelated (at least at the outset) and involving characters with little in common beyond being fellow denizens of a few blocks around a convenience store in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The store, operated by spouses Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernandez) and Samira (Selenis Leyva), is a neighborhood gathering place. As the play proceeds, the relationships of the seemingly random characters come slowly and haltingly into focus — and eventually the significance of the steamy love-making in the first scene becomes clear, as well.

Lazaro is the Atlantic Theater Company's 2016-2017 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence (also, an actor, nominated for a 2015 Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play). Tell Hector I Miss Him is her intricate account of the darker side of a town known to many New York playgoers primarily as a vacation destination. The San Juan Lazaro presents is an unpoetic, hardscrabble world, and she conjures it with a script that is, for the most part, devoid of both poetry and the appearance of literary artifice.

Directed by David Mendizabal, Tell Hector I Miss Him features a bi-lingual cast that, even in pre-opening previews, had gelled as an impressive ensemble. The actors' performances have a seeming spontaneity that's unusual, even in a theater profoundly influenced by Method acting and its concerted naturalism.

Lazaro's characters provide a slice of neighborhood life: In the square outside the store, brothers Jeison (Victor Almanzar) and Palito (Sean Carvajal) sell drugs to tourists, as well as to natives. Grifters such as El Mago (Luis Vega) perform card tricks for sightseers' dollars; and desperate women, like Tati (Analisa Velez) and La Gata (Talene Monahon), a teen runaway, hustle for a living by any available means.

High-school student Tono (Alexander Flores), forced to care for his hopelessly alcoholic mother (Lisa Ramirez) on the pittance he earns as a stock boy in the store, is flirting with suicide. Malena (Dascha Polanco), years into adulthood, remains emotionally stunted by past parental abuse. Others deal with fetal alcohol syndrome, spousal betrayal, terminal illness, and familial desertion. Even Samira and Mostro, who seem the most stable, are living on an emotional ledge.

It's all interesting and touching. However, neither the writer nor the director manage to transform the disparate scenes into an integrated whole.

The intriguing title comes from the play's one genuinely poetic sequence, a dialogue between El Mago and his sad-sack friend Hugo (Flanco Navaja). The drug-addled Hugo is luxuriating in a coke-fueled vision of his deceased father fraternizing in the next world with Hector Lavoe, known among salsa-music fans as "El Cantante de los Cantantes." Entering into the spirit of Hugo's delusion, El Mago implores Hugo's father: " . . . tell Hector I miss him. Tell him we all miss him here and that Salsa and this place will never be the same without him." That moment encapsulates the disappointment and bitter nostalgia that are prevailing themes.

Clint Ramos has designed an appropriately dreary unit set, with walls like a stone fortress, evoking dark corners of Old San Juan and reinforcing the playwright's dismal tone. As one scene gives way to the next, Eric Southern's unobtrusive lighting shifts and actors quickly rearrange furnishings or props to transform the stage, with its stationary scenery, from one location to another, all supposedly within a stone's throw of each other. Throughout the performance, rectangular panels above the stage exhibit projections of steady ocean waves, a reminder that the play's characters are stuck like prisoners on an island.

The characters have much in common with the family depicted in Basil Kreimendahl's Orange Julius, currently at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater ( review ), and the porn actors in Paul Cameron Hardy's Mope at Ensemble Studio Theatre. All are struggling to stave off depression, with little for distraction but pop music, drugs, food, and fleeting moments of carnal pleasure. The characters of all three productions call to mind mice, which are said to pass their whole lives scrambling within a radius of a few feet. A bleak vision, yes, but familiar among millennial playwrights.

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Tell Hector I Miss Him by Paola Lazaro
Director: David Mendizabal
Cast: Victor Almanzar (Jeison); Sean Carvajal (Palito); Alexander Flores (Tono); Yadira Guevara-Prip (Isis); Juan Carlos Hernandez (Mostro); Selenis Leyva (Samira); Talene Monahon (La Gata); Flaco Navaja (Hugo); Dashcha Polanco (Malena); Lisa Ramirez (Mami); Luis Vega (El Mago); Analisa Velez (Tati)
Scenic Designer: Clint Ramos
Costume Designer: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Designer: Eric Southern
Sound Designer: Jesse Mandapat
Production Stage Manager: Laura Smith
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes (with one intermission)
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
From 1/11/17; opened 1/23/17; closing 2/12/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at January 19th press performance

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