There’s enough material for a full-length play in any one of the four warring plotlines that make up “Knives and Other Sharp Objects.” As it is, Raul Castillo’s heartfelt Texas drama is considerably less than the sum of its parts, with too many characters and more locations than a James Bond movie. Still, it’s hard to begrudge the play its vast scope when its subject matter — old-money families in south Texas, life in a border town — mines such a rich, seldom-explored seam of experience, however briefly.
Castillo opens on Beatrice (Noemi Del Rio) and Alex (Joselin Reyes) — sisters heading away from their tiny hometown of Mission, about five miles north of the Texas/Mexico border. Not a bad kid overall, Beatrice has reached the bratty stage of adolescence, and big sister Alex plays surrogate mother during their trip north. It’s a journey of indefinite length — the girls’ father is dying, and the two siblings are to be looked after by their uncle, Jaime (Jaime Tirelli).
The action moves from bus to bus station to car to house with an alacrity that does some significant structural damage to the narrative. Castillo has clearly learned his storytelling craft from the movies, and his settings, many of which confine the dialogue to chairs and car seats, suck a lot of energy out of the performances.
Happily, most of the performers have energy to spare. Reyes and Del Rio, in particular, play their roles with utter conviction and keep at bay much of the incredulity that Castillo’s gangster subplot might otherwise inspire.
When the girls finally make it to Jaime’s house, Castillo gives us the most interesting dynamic in the play: the old money Hispanic/WASP family. This, by the way, is not some offbeat construction — living right next to the “Remember the Alamo” set in Texas is a multigenerational Hispanic aristocracy that continues to flourish. In this particular family, Castillo has paired Tio Jaime with Tia Lydia (Candy Buckley, good in a thankless role), an insufferable social climber who has latched onto her moneyed husband and produced two similarly self-centered kids, Loren (Amanda Perez) and Lucy (Ana Nogueira).
It would be a stretch to say Castillo should have made his play entirely about these people. The writer demonstrates such contempt for Lydia and Jaime’s trashy daughters — Loren especially — that it’s hard to imagine any further indignities he could have visited on them, much less a burst of sympathy for these barely parented young women. Still, there’s something about the white/Hispanic dynamic that keeps Castillo coming back to this uniquely dysfunctional family.
That attraction may be Jaime, whose greed and ego drive away both his new family and his old one. Tirelli’s performance is good, but it’s the playwright who makes the part interesting with his unerring sense of this bitter old man surrounded by people he’s chosen to be with and doesn’t particularly like anymore.
At one point a couple of soldiers (Ed Vassallo and Angelo Rosso) spout conservative platitudes; at another, a hard-luck case caught up in narcotrafficante troubles (Michael Ray Escamilla) tries to woo Alex. Neither of these stories really seems to matter.
In staging the piece, the Public has located a topic worth devoting further time and attention to. And for about 30 of this play’s 140 minutes, Castillo nails it dead-on.