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Acts of Mercy: passion-play

A Cuban patriarch on his deathbed; two brothers battling their rage and grief; sexy women asking for trouble; bloody bar fights; sadomasochistic sex; full frontal nudity -- what more could you ask from a domestic drama? A coherent structure would be nice. And maybe a few clues about the history of this violent family.

Acts of Mercy: passion-play

A Cuban patriarch on his deathbed; two brothers battling their rage and grief; sexy women asking for trouble; bloody bar fights; sadomasochistic sex; full frontal nudity — what more could you ask from a domestic drama? A coherent structure would be nice. And maybe a few clues about the history of this violent family. Nothing soft or girly, you understand — just a hint of plot to keep an audience from squirming in discomfort from all the pointless macho bravado.

Michael John Garces, a prolific scribe with a string of plays to his credit (“Points of Departure,” “Audiovideo,” etc.), obviously likes to write big scenes for characters pumped up on adrenaline and drunk on David Mamet dialogue: the barroom brawl, the deathbed confrontation, the attempted rape — that kind of scene.

There are plenty of such moments (14 by the playwright’s own count) in “Acts of Mercy,” which makes frequent reference to the dirty secrets of a dysfunctional Cuban-American family without actually dramatizing them. Whatever happened in the past stays in the past. All we see onstage is the damage from that legacy: brief, violent scenes that are all climax and no explanation — The impotent acting-out of angry men too manly to show you their boo-boos and admit that they hurt.

This disjointed play opens with a tyrannical patriarch named Nestor (Jose Febus) lying on his deathbed, calling out in his delirium for the sons borne to him by the dead wives he apparently mistreated. Younger son Eladio (Andres Munar) is living at home and tending to his father’s needs, but Nestor wants to reconcile with Jaime (Bryant Mason), his first-born.

Jaime, however, will have none of it, and the merciful acts in the title are Eladio’s compassionate efforts to bring his brother to their father’s bedside to ease his suffering.

Munar plays Eladio with an air of sweetness and gravity that makes him more saint than hero. But the character’s decent impulses face formidable opposition from the antisocial men in his family.

To begin with, there is big brother Jaime, an angry, strutting bully in Mason’s flashy perf of this alpha male. Other members of this brawling clan are just as quick to get up in Eladio’s face, including another half-brother, T.J. (Tommy Schrider), who bosses him around with less than brotherly affection, and his highly volatile cousin Ricky (Ivan Quintanilla), barnyard-dumb under the best of circumstances and truly dangerous when drunk.

Then there are the women: Arabella, a sexy, unstable force of nature in Veronica Cruz’s incendiary performance, who while nominally T.J.’s girlfriend is carrying on a hot sadomasochistic affair with the married Jaime and giving blowjobs to Eladio as his father lies dying in the next room.

Although only marginally more stable, Kathleen, the flaky dancer who meets Eladio and Ricky in a topless bar, comes across as a bruised but infinitely wise child in Jenny Maguire’s wittily nuanced performance.

Ironic for such a testosterone-fueled show, the two women (as well as the actresses who play them with such confident presence) actually overshadow the men in helmer Gia Forakis’ ensemble production.

Forakis, a founding member of Epic Proportions Prods., knows how to stage the confrontational scenes that Garces writes for angry and inarticulate men, keeping these encounters tight and scary. With few set pieces to get in the way and Peter West’s needle-point lighting to focus the eye, every innocuous exchange becomes a battle for status and power.

But these mano-a-mano scenes lose their impact through the scribe’s self-conscious use of language and his helmer’s indulgence of it. No one ever starts a sentence or expresses a thought without another character stepping on it — an affectation that loses its Mamet-like edge because it’s all for show and lacks the beauty of disciplined design.

The women are thrown the same verbal curve balls, but the overtly sexual nature of their behavior modulates the pace of their scenes, giving their dialogue some breathing space.

Although the staging of the graphic sex scene between Arabella and Jaime is anything but languid, the sensuous lighting and carefully choreographed movement provides some quiet time that is more of a relief than a turn-on. And while Kathleen is also expected to talk like a machine gun, Maguire shrewdly buys time for the character by letting us see on her face every thought going on in her head.

In a way, it’s only fitting that the women should have the last word in this play about men who act without thinking and talk without listening.

Acts of Mercy: passion-play

Rattlestick Playwrights; 99 seats; $37.50 top

  • Production: A Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Michael John Garces. Directed by Gia Forakis.
  • Crew: Sets, Robin Vest; costumes, Elizabeth Hope Clancy; lighting, Peter West; sound, Daniel Baker; original music, Matthew Sutter and Broken Chord Collective; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Anne Michelson. Opened Feb. 16, 2006. Reviewed Feb. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Arabella - Veronica Cruz Nestor - Jose Febus Kathleen - Jenny Maguire Jaime - Bryant Mason Eladio - Andres Munar T.J. - Tommy Schrider Ricky - Ivan Quintanilla
  • Music By: