Always and Forever, set in Norwalk and Tijuana, is also a coming-of-age story, but is worlds apart from Venecia’s one-man show. A large-cast comedy written by Michael Patrick Spillers, it regularly resorts to fantasy. In fact, it plays out on so many levels that before long, you grow nostalgic for Mesquite’s simplicity. Like Venecia’s work, it is full of its author’s enthusiasm for Latino culture. Spillers, a Midwesterner who is not Latino, was electrified by the barrio culture he encountered while attending USC, and he glorifies it here. He is the anti-Imus.
The play’s central plot involves a cranky teenager and her attempts to survive her quinceañera. Alma (Gisselle Castellanos) is stuck with a family tradition — not only must she wear a century-old dress, but she must have the heirloom altered in Tijuana. (And Gonzalo thought he had it bad with that ugly brown number.) She’s also been warned by her mother that her favorite music, the corridos favored by Mexican cowboys and narcotraficantes alike, will not be on her party’s playlist. Big sister Celia (Cristina Frias) has her hands full with both Alma and Celia’s Aztlán-nationalist boyfriend, José (Rudy Marquez), whose head is full of Chicano mysticism and Zapatista brio.
Always & Forever takes its name from the late-1970s Heatwave song and celebrates the Latino neighborhood with all its eccentricities, superstitions and traditions. Like Mesquite, the play also becomes a road story, once Alma, Celia and José drive down to TJ for the dress fitting. They are joined by Alma’s goony, hip-hopping male friend Moy (Xavier Moreno), Celia’s photographer pal Olivia (Giselle Jones), Morrissey fan Rudy (Dennis Garcia), and Boxer (Horacio Galaviz), who’s driving everyone down in his ’56 Chevy Nomad station wagon.
There is actually another passenger, the spirit of Jesus Malverde (Jesus Castaños-Chima), a plaster botanica bust come to life, who acts as Alma’s unreliable guide to Mexico and something resembling maturity. It is Malverde, the patron saint of border crossers and drug runners, who promises to hook up Alma with her own idol, the young corrido crooner Adán “Chalino” Sánchez. If that station wagon felt a little crowded, so does Always & Forever, an odyssey in which Alma’s story tends to get swallowed up by the warring subplots Spillers sets in motion. There is José’s growing desire to remain in Mexico, Boxer’s obsession with locating a house once inhabited by his brother, Diego, who was killed in Iraq, and Rudy’s mysterious wishes to avoid that discovery.
None of these stories are unworthy by themselves, but as a collection, they throw us off the scent of what this evening is supposed to be about. (The slapstick introduction of a TJ ticket scalper and narcoleptic named Nardo, played by Richard Azurdia, further deflects our attention.) Spillers has some nicely honed scenes, especially a chat-room debate between Rudy and Nardo over the merits of ranchera music versus Morrissey. But he really has two strong plays here — Alma and her week of wonders, and Boxer and Rudy’s fight to possess Diego’s legacy.
Director Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez is never able to sort out this traffic jam of storylines. Both his cast and Chris Kuhl’s simple but effective set design (a Malverde shrine, some suspended photographic images and a few bits of furniture) look good, although his actors seem locked into opaque performances that never vary. The show’s relative tautness unravels after intermission, and the remainder of the play seems like a jumble of moments instead of a coherent narrative, leading us to conclude that perhaps there literally are no second acts in Mexican-American lives.
UNDER EL GRAN MESQUITE | Written and performed by GONZALO VENECIA | At the HUDSON MAINSTAGE THEATRE, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Through May 6 | (323) 960-5773
ALWAYS & FOREVER | By MICHAEL PATRICK SPILLERS | Watts Village Theater Company at [INSIDE] THE FORD, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd. | Through April 29 | (323) 461-3673