Dramatists are told to “write what you know,” and young Kristoffer Diaz certainly knows the world of professional wrestling, its sainted tropes as formal as Kabuki. He’s also aware of wrestling’s metaphorical power, loading up “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” with a sardonic critique of all themes American in the guise of a WWF lampoon. The acclaimed Pulitzer-finalist play arrives at the Geffen from Chicago and Gotham with original lead actors, helmer Edward Torres and audacity intact. If the entertaining spectacle lacks real anger and kick, well, so do the purveyors of the sport it portrays.
Journeyman wrestler Mace (Desmin Borges) is our jivey, rapping tour guide from his sad-sack position as regularly designated loser to the likes of flashy champ Deity (Terence Archie). If the former reminds you of Usnavi from “In the Heights,” while the latter conjures up Rod Tidwell demanding Jerry Maguire show him the money, that familiarity doesn’t reduce the appeal of their vigorous tag-team act.
As Mace points out in his vaguely anticapitalist way, “you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking,” and these mugs have it down to a science.
But Mace yearns to segue from stooge to entrepreneur, finding a meal ticket in a local Indian hip-hop phenom. “V.P.” (Usman Ally) is an utterly original creation, a wise wiseguy eager to grab the American dream even at the price of performing rehearsed antics before booing crowds, in the persona of a Muslim terrorist called “The Fundamentalist.” (His specialty move the “Sleeper Cell” can floor any opponent, even one wrapped in the American flag. Throughout the play, such symbols crash like cymbals.)
Cast newcomer Steve Valentine gleefully exudes smarmy-Limey charm as a Vince McMahon figure, and Borges, Archie and Ally couldn’t be more riveting. Nor could their bouts be more convincing, fight choreographer David Woolley surely getting inspiration from real wrestlers Timothy Talbott and Justin Leeper in residence.
Torres keeps the action lively and real, deftly shifting from intimate truth-telling to the elaborate lies played out on canvas beneath Jesse Klug’s rock-concert lighting, abetted by Mikhail Fiksel’s extraordinarily rich sound design.
But the whole is something less than the sum of its parts, its satirical jabs too diffuse, its themes too blatantly – and at times wearily and windily – spelled out by Mace.
And there’s a hollowness at the play’s center, in Mace’s nostalgia for the wrestling of his Bronx youth as viewed on a tiny TV with grandpa and brothers. Despair though he may about the profession’s decline in community and honor, there seems little difference in purity between Hulk Hogan’s old-time posturing bombast and Mace’s no-steenking-badges “Che Chavez Castro” caricature.
Either way, as “Dreamgirls” told us 30 years ago, it’s showbiz – just showbiz. That much, “Chad Deity” gets very well indeed.