Kicking off its 40th year as a small-scale, multimedia San Francisco arts institution, Intersection for the Arts made an apt choice in commissioning (with resident theater company Campo Santo) a new play by Jessica Hagedorn. The Filipina-American poet-dramatist-performer’s involvement with the venue goes back at least a quarter-century. “Stairway to Heaven” is just the kind of adventuresome work Intersection has long been identified with, even if this one-acter about five misfits in the hard-luck Tenderloin district, ends up feeling as unfocused as it is frequently vivid.
A domineering, grandiose personality and physical presence, Nena (Catherine Castellanos) chances upon Mickey (Sean San Jose) scrounging food from trash cans one day. She decides on the spot to take him in, giving up her own bed. In return for being fed and sheltered, the grateful but tersely spoken young man is expected to pull his own weight — notably by taking dictation as Nena narrates her highly dramatic life story, hoping to publish a “cookbook memoir.”
Her “genius in the kitchen” is such that it wraps smitten local strip-club owner Blauvelt (Luis Saguar) around her finger; when she insists, he reluctantly hires Mickey as janitorial help.
While Nena exhibits no overt amorous intent toward her boarder, she’s nonetheless quite hostile toward his frequent “guest” Minnie (Tisa Huang), a perpetually strung-out stripper/prostitute who climbs through Mickey’s bedroom window at all hours. Minnie may be a train wreck, but she’s in love. The redemptive passion she begs from Mickey, however, isn’t forthcoming — he’s passive, pliable but noncommittal toward both women.
Household’s uneasy but semi-stable balance is thrown off by the arrival of Nena’s snobbish, goading sister Fe (Margo Hall), who’s just left her third husband on a whim. It’s obvious the two siblings, both emigres from some unspecified “remote archipelago of tiny islands,” have never gotten along. Much dust in the nature of old resentments is kicked up. When it settles, all characters have changed, at least a bit.
Well-acted under Nancy Benjamin’s able direction, “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin songs are a running thread) juggles unequal amounts of humor, interesting character dynamics, partially-revealed backstories and underdeveloped thematic motifs to intriguing but erratic effect. At the end it simply stops, without providing any grace note or sense of journey completed.
The characters bounce off one another in slightly grotesque, often funny ways, the men batted around like tumbleweeds by the gale force of powerful, conflicting female desires. (Saguar’s not-so-tough “girlie bar” proprietor is a particular delight.) But direct-audience-address monologues often break the ensemble tension without adding much themselves.
Some gambits seem simply arbitrary or misguided — Minnie’s brief interpretative-dance-of-madness being perhaps the worst. In the end, “Stairway” is a whole that feels significantly less than the sum of its parts, diverting as they are.
James Faerron’s straightforward set provides a cross-section of Nena’s kitchen and bedroom upstairs, with a small perch for strip-club pole-dancing off to the side.