Review: ‘The Street of the Sun’

Note to playwrights: If you're going to end your play with a natural disaster, you'd better be sure that what has passed before doesn't invite comparisons. Jose Rivera's "The Street of the Sun" is a sprawling, overweening mess of a play that paints a picture of Los Angeles as a sprawling, overweening mess, even as it invites us to see the beauty in the city.

Note to playwrights: If you’re going to end your play with a natural disaster, you’d better be sure that what has passed before doesn’t invite comparisons. Jose Rivera’s “The Street of the Sun” is a sprawling, overweening mess of a play that paints a picture of Los Angeles as a sprawling, overweening mess, even as it invites us to see the beauty in the city. Rivera’s talents for odd, evocative imagery and some pointed comic caricature are undone by a heavy dose of pretension and much P.C. speechifying.

The play’s central character is ex-schoolteacher Jorge Cienfuegos (John Ortiz), who’s come to Hollywood with his reluctant wife to make it in the screenwriting biz. His only industry connection is fellow Latino Lydia Ruiz, but at lunch before a big meeting she’s arranged for him at Cyclops Films, he finds that Lydia has morphed into Bianca Stewart (Bertila Damas), a vulgar industry vulture who laughs hysterically at Jorge’s worries about selling out.

As Jorge struggles through a day that includes the disastrous meeting at Cyclops (more heavy-handed Hollywood bashing: one employee wears blackface, another a Carmen Miranda chapeau), the would-be screenwriter encounters all manner of local color: a young woman who believes she caused the Northridge earthquake; a migrant worker whose family was killed in a truck trying to outrun the police; a black woman who’s still got the riots on her mind.

Rivera is aiming to weave a tapestry of the city’s multiethnic culture, but he isn’t interested in creating characters; he’s too busy writing speeches. The migrant worker’s tale might touch our hearts if her story of a car wreck didn’t turn lyrical-poetic: “The storm had turned my family to rain,” she says mystically after a lengthy monologue about the sad plight of such workers. The black woman gives a fiery spiel about the “years of hatred and disappointment” that caused the riots.The second act begins with Jorge’s French wife, who didn’t have a good word to say about the city in the morning, singing its praises by nightfall. Seems she took a day tour of the town’s multicultural wonders and is newly converted.

The journey through the city’s myriad ethnic neighborhoods she describes would take six weeks to complete, but more significantly, her speech points up the play’s tendencies toward tired P.C. tourism, with various cultural signposts being trotted on and off (“L.A. is the second-largest Guatemalan city …”).

Rivera also piles on some fantastic touches: Jorge learns early on that Apollo — the Greek god — has moved to Hollywood. It’s an amusing idea that Rivera takes nowhere; when Apollo finally appears, it is only to offer a coarse, inane exit speech that marks the play’s low point.Director David Esbjornson has faithfully followed the playwright’s uneasy mixture of styles, encouraging broad playing in the scenes spoofing Hollywood’s crassness, and treating with somber seriousness the P.C. polemics.

Damas is suitably overripe as Bianca/Lydia, and makes good impressions in several other roles, as do Dawnn Lewis and Vanessa Marquez. As Jorge, Ortiz is charismatic and convincing as a man torn between self-promotion and the self-hatred it brings him. His tirade about ambition being like a disease is one of Rivera’s few striking and original notes.

The Street of the Sun

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles; 760 seats; $37 top

Production

Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum presents a play in two acts by Jose Rivera. Directed by David Esbjornson.

Creative

Set, Christopher Barreca; costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting, Geoff Korf; sound, Jon Gottlieb; music, Dave Ossmann; casting, Stanley Soble, Nicole Arbusto, Joy Dickson. Opened, reviewed May 27, 1997; runs through June 8. Running time: 2 hours, 25 min.

Cast

Cast: Bertila Damas, Catherine Dent, Robert Dorfman, Dawnn Lewis, Vanessa Marquez, Jeanne Mori, Javi Mulero, John Ortiz, Victor Raider-Wexler, Herschel Sparber.
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