Exhilarating and provocative, Octavio Solis’ “Santos & Santos” merits a serious look by regional and Off Broadway stages. An ambitious, wickedly funny melodrama, the nearly three-hour “Santos” is epic in both plot and its tart, free-swinging perspective.
“Santos” debuted in 1993 as a work-in-progress at the cavernous Theater Artaud, making its official premiere at the Dallas Theater Center last year. The fledgling S.F. company Campo Santo now has mounted a chamber-scale production at the tiny New Langdon Arts Theater, and the play’s impact is undiminished.
Unfolding over three acts, the play begins as young Tomas (Sean San Jose Blackman) returns to hometown El Paso after a soul-deadening stint as a San Diego district attorney. He joins elder sibs Miguel and Fernando in a flashy, community-minded private law practice.
This idyll of Mexican-American swagger is short-lived. Recruited by a federal judge, Tomas narcs on his brothers’ drug trafficking, figuring he’ll save the family. Repercussions are as immediate as they are violent, misguided and shocking.
It would be unfair to reveal further the narrative surprises Solis spitballs through this riveting mix of “Godfather” operatics, black humor and moral inquiry. As successive disasters strike, various loyalties gnaw at Tomas, twisting him toward increasingly destructive actions.
Is he right to blow the whistle on the corrupt Santos game? Can betrayal of kin be excused on a higher moral ground? Or has Tomas been a fool for the racist U.S. judicial system? “Santos & Santos” views such dilemmas as a huge gray zone.
The characters prove changeable under pressure, making for a wittily complex psychological landscape. Patriarchal Miguel and hot-tempered Fernie melt when the heat comes down; other characters sink or swim in the tidal shifts.
Several actors in the excellent cast repeat roles from director Tony Kelly’s 1993 production; the most significant new arrival is Blackman, who brings an apt mix of earnestness and panic to Tomas’ gradual, hapless disintegration. Michael Torres and Luis Saguar remain terrific as the other Santos siblings. James Carpenter lends the judge a more Mephistophelean tilt than hitherto, injecting a distracting sexual tension into his exploitation of Tomas.
The play’s theme of second-generation Mexican-Americans struggling upstream in the land of unequal opportunity is sometimes spelled out in murky dramaturgical gambits, including “Strange Interlude”-style musings. Laden with metaphorical language, these bits stick out a bit too much in a text otherwise high on straight-talking oomph. The compellingly lurid story and its comic irony are what hold the attention.
Somewhat surprisingly, “Santos & Santos” plays just as well in a minuscule space as it did filling Artaud’s hangar-like expanse. Kelly handles overlapping or quick-changing scenes with aplomb; there’s no set to speak of beyond a table, chairs and Jim Cave’s starkly effective lighting design. Sarah Cant’s costumes are right-on, and Tito Larriva’s new music package includes stirring excerpts from David Conte’s string-based original 1993 score.