Gabriela doesn’t like Benito’s job. Who can blame her? Benito’s just back from the Persian Gulf War and the couple’s off to Germany next. Benito has his problems with her, too: He doesn’t like the way she keeps house. And who can blame him? There’s nothing but cat food in the cupboards since the Cat, after much debate with the Coyote, left home to go get laid as the two of them are serenaded by the ass-scratching Moon. Jose Rivera’s “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” only sounds like a bad play. Actually, it’s half good. Then there’s the other half.
In “Sueno,” his last play, Rivera reworked “Life Is a Dream,” Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17-century epic classic. There, the playwright kept sending us back and forth between the sacred and the profane to much comic, as well as dramatically harrowing, effect. His contempo “Salvador Dali” merely jerks us between the profane and the mundane, a far less prodigious achievement.
“They say from the tears of women/Are civilizations made,” says the Moon (Michael Lombard). Gabriela (Rosie Perez) shoots back, “They really say that?”
Better response: Did someone really write that?
Rivera brackets his play with poesy-style verse that’s supposed to give symbolic significance to the marriage of Gabriela and Benito (John Ortiz) by way of the Cat (Kristine Nielsen), who represents domesticity, i.e. Gabriela, and Coyote (Kevin Jackson), who represents adventure, i.e. Benito. It’s pretty silly stuff, whether it be fantasy or dream, and it plays silly on the stage, with little or no dramatic payoff.
It is not until Rivera leaves the dime-store surrealism behind that we arrive at the core of his play: the emotional impasse that is Gabriela and Benito’s marriage.
Director Jo Bonney has better luck here. Good writing often has that effect on directors and their actors. Listless in the first act, Perez becomes painfully empathetic in the company of Ortiz, a powerful performer who seems entirely capable of detonating the stage at any given moment. As Rivera sets up their relationship, our sympathies are with her. She is, after all, the Army wife left in the lonely California desert, waiting for him to return. She’s put in 11 years with another nine to go on his tenure, at which time, Gabriela fears, she still will be making minimum wage at Costco. She’s even gotten into adult education, and Salvador Dali’s “Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love” now hangs in their bedroom.
When the swaggering, fatigue-garbed, army-booted Benito finally arrives, in act two of a four-act play, he’s no conquering hero. He simply wants his refrigerator filled and to make love to Gabriela. To Rivera’s credit, and in a suspense-filled performance by Ortiz, Benito gradually and systematically begins to score points against Gabriela’s compassionate, if not conventional, concept of their relationship.
Rivera turns the bruised flesh of Benito’s macho posturing inside out to expose why he can never leave the Army — for all its horrors, for all its restrictions on the woman he loves but can never please — without destroying himself. When she patronizes him with “You joined the Army ’cause you were poor,” Benito lets us know, “I ain’t poor no more. And I don’t mean the Grand Nation parked outside. I mean in me, my mind: The war on poverty ended and I won it.”
Ultimately, Rivera drags back the Cat & Co. for a short coda. He even gives Gabriela a second chance with Benito, not that these two would make it given a dozen new endings. Rivera may be saying that love, whether spiritual or carnal, is overpowering. But the real power of “Salvador Dali” is that it shows us what happens when one person’s deepest needs turn into another’s prison walls.
The “Salvador Dali” production is pushed into a corner of a small room better known as the Shiva Theater. With its thin veneer of stucco over clapboard, Neil Patel’s set looks thrown together and tacky. In one respect, it does achieve a certain authenticity. As with so much that’s man-made in the California desert, a good wind and shake of the earth would clear this stage of any evidence humans had ever stepped foot here.