Anyone who’s caught ABC dramedy “Ugly Betty” has gotten a taste of telenovelas, those Spanish-language soaps that always have room for camp, intrigue and sex. The genre gets another bid for American credibility with “El Conquistador,” a telenovela for the stage at New York Theater Workshop. Both lowbrow and high concept, the show mixes a fizzy plot — about a Colombian doorman in a deadly love triangle — with portentous symbolism and experimental video. These opposing influences never quite gel, but the play’s visual charm and a brisk running time make its awkwardness easy to forgive.
“El Conquistador” often recalls a silent movie. Like Charlie Chaplin’s factory caper “Modern Times,” the play pits a simple man against his technological surroundings. Gentle Polonio — played by co-writer and set designer Thaddeus Phillips — leaves his war-torn village to seek acting work in Bogota, but he instead becomes the doorman of a building he can barely comprehend. There are gags about broken TV antennas, elevators that close too quickly and a videophone that lets wealthy tenants call down for cigarettes and soda.
But those tenants — played by Colombian telenovela stars — are never real. They appear only in video projections, as does most of the background scenery. Polonio has a houseplant and a desk, but most of his world is onscreen.
This allows for some dazzling images created by Lucidity Suitcase, a theater team co-founded by Phillips and director Tatiana Mallarino. On an opaque scrim, we see shots of the building’s lobby and gated driveway, with filmed actors speaking to Polonio as though they could see him. The live thesp answers back, often running backstage and then stepping into the movie a moment later.
The blurred reality pulls laughs, and Phillips deftly manipulates the visuals. For instance, when he wheels his desk around, he changes the perspective on the screen, as though he were turning the entire room on an axis.
This cleverness gives wit and warmth to the video, a device that often feels cold in the flesh-and-blood theater.
And when tenants do need to come onstage, the production shows similar pluck. Obscured by Venetian blinds or shadowy lighting, Phillips throws on new costumes and mouths along to pre-recorded vocals. Everything’s in Spanish with English subtitles, so the experience is like watching an international drag show.
This inventiveness, however, often covers an unfocused script. Except for the silly melodrama of its final minutes, the writing rarely builds to anything. Instead, situations keep repeating, and Polonio keeps handling them the same way. The elevator keeps closing, and the doorman never changes his approach to getting inside. Eventually his foot-in-the-door method just works, the antithesis of dramatic tension.
It’s easy to drift as Polonio’s problems sort themselves out so easily. Plus, Phillips makes the character quiet and unflappable. Easygoing calm is not a compelling trait in a comic hero. When it finally arrives, the doorman’s affair with a tenant’s girlfriend offers a reason to pay attention. But this plot doesn’t surface until the show’s final third.
Otherwise, the recurring jokes alternate with ambiguous metaphors: Polonio finds Christopher Columbus’ diary, and the elevator opens on a shot of the ocean. The building itself is named the New World, and the cuckolded tenant dresses in a Columbus costume.
Are these references meaningful, or are they mere poetic flourishes? It’s difficult to know, since they mostly drift by without consequence.