The culture clash when Latino troupe Culture Clash meets famously conservative Orange County isn’t exactly on the order of the hippies at the ’68 Democratic Convention, or even the Clampetts in Beverly Hills. Indeed, during most of “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa” at South Coast Rep, artists and audience meet in the middle with equal measures of openness and understanding. If the subversiveness is muted, the talent shines in this breezily agreeable sketch show, a fine way to meet the trio for the first time.
Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza have turned years’ worth of coast-to-coast interviews, most seemingly with the marginalized and disenfranchised, into monologues, blackouts and longer sketches satirically illuminating the variously fractious or filial state of multicultural relations. Helmer David Emmes effectively sets the action against a giant gray-scaled U.S. flag, as if you were watching the opening of “Patton” on an old Philco TV.
There’s some retrofitting to the location — the show opens with a Mexican day-laborer philosophically waiting for work outside an Anaheim Home Depot — but since the trio don’t want to leave their best material behind, “site specificity” amounts to inserting names and in-jokes for crowd amusement.
Passing references to local Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, embattled Sheriff Mike Corona or polishing the pistol on the Duke’s statue at John Wayne Airport elicit hoots of knowing laughter. But any direct inquiry into the blind spot of a body politic allowing alleged corruption to flourish is discreetly eschewed. No doubt feeling it’d be presumptuous for brief sojourners to lob site-specific grenades, the troupe doesn’t hit the spectators precisely where they live.
Which isn’t to say their barbs don’t sting, in satire applicable to the racial or ethnic divide: In Miami, an elderly Jew (Montoya) rants about his ancestors insisting, “In America, you have to learn the language. Sure, they said it in Yiddish, but still!”
More scenes end in hope (or wry resignation) than in despair, leaving a distinctly reassuring implication that while “otherness” continues to divide us, it needn’t do so forever.
Thesps’ versatility is undeniable. Salinas is the natural standup of the group as a “Nuyorican” in Gotham, genially explaining differences in salsa dancing: Cubans with flapping chicken arms, Central Americans shaking their booty. Siguenza’s puckish grin accompanies the most audacious character choices, whether as an African-American preacher addressing the ethnicity of Jesus or as Adelita, the San Francisco pre-op transsexual community activist.
Montoya, scribe of the troupe’s tough full-length “Water & Power” two years ago, makes the most of dicey monologues from Mohammed, a D.C. cabbie clashing with angry strangers, disaffected teens and an Israeli deli acquaintance, as well as Tommy from Sudbury, Mass., in two surprising encounters with the elderly priest who molested him years back. In both, we’re not in the OC any more.
Montoya’s solo sequences whet the appetite for another longform “Water & Power” or “Chavez Ravine,” but until we get another filling meal from Culture Clash, this tray of tasty hors d’oeuvres will do.