She’s a Mexican-born writer, tenacious, insecure, a “diversity hire” for a popular television detective program. He’s an American-born janitor of Mexican heritage who works the night shift at the show’s film studio. They’re the characters in Tanya Saracho’s two-character “Fade,” getting an East Coast premiere at Off Broadway’s Primary Stages. It’s a wheel-spinner of a play that sets out to address issues of culture, class and the price of ambition, but ends up being as contrived as a telenovela.
A writer of such sharply observed shows as “Looking,” “Girls” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” Saracho seems confined here by the structure of a two-character one-act, especially on subjects she clearly knows well.
Lucia (Annie Dow) arrives late at night to set up her new office — a head-scratching time to decorate the new digs and clearly crafted as the only way for her to cross paths with after-hours custodian Abel (Eddie Martinez). But meet-cute isn’t in the air for the status-conscious writer. When Abel arrives to clean, Lucia hardly notices him — until she needs help.
But she needs more than someone to fix her shelving. Lucia needs someone to whom she can vent her anger, worries and frustrations. She tells him the all-male, all-white writing staff sees her merely as a token and her boss sees her as a translator for when he needs to scold his Latina maid.
She knows she’s on shaky ground. Her writing resume is thin with one novel to her credit (the aptly titled “The Definitive Guide to Nothing”). She knows little about the tough neighborhoods depicted in the crime series. And she looks down on the show, which from the snippets heard is more like a program from another era. “It’s only television,” she says dismissively, seemingly ignorant of where some of the best writing is today.
After she softens her spoiled and entitled attitude, she and Abel banter about who is more Mexican, the correct usage of Hispanic and Latino, indignities suffered on them by the culturally uninformed and the resentment of being seen as a stereotype — while making plenty of assumptions and generalities about others, and each other.
If romance is a possibility, it’s a long-shot: She is condescending and self-involved; he’s withdrawn and well-aware of his position. Educated in the U.S., she comes from an affluent family, even if she sharply denies it. (“Everyone in Mexico has a maid. Even maids have maids now.”) But Abel doesn’t buy it. He’s working class from a dicey part of town, a former Marine who has spent time in jail and knows a privileged princess when he sees one.
Lucia is a savvy exploiter and as she manipulates her boss, outmaneuvers a colleague and appropriates ideas, she sees her status at work rise. During one late night exchange, Abel opens up about his life, his struggles and a life-changing incident. Lucia’s response puts into question their relationship, her sincerity and the point of the play.
There might have been something to emotionally engage us in director Jerry Ruiz’s production if Lucia wasn’t written and portrayed as so charmless, irritatingly garrulous and obviously artificial. As played by Dow, she hardly has the audience rooting for her, much less wishing for romance with the sincere and sensitive Abel, warmly played by Martinez is a nicely measured performance.
How authenticity of culture and self fades in the light of show biz remains a compelling and complex theme to explore. But in the limitations of “Fade,” its shadings seem merely flat.