Fernanda Coppel writes with the whip-smart humor and world-weary disdain of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, which is precisely the persona she adopts for “Chimichangas and Zoloft,” her raunchy domestic comedy about how two best friends deal with their parents’ massive mid-life crises. Under Jaime Castaneda’s fastidious helming for the Atlantic Theater Company, a keen cast walks that fine line between the characters’ outrageous comic dilemmas and the messy but honest emotions underlying their coarse and infantile behavior.
The show’s spiffy production values illustrate what a careful budget can buy for a 99-seat house: Lauren Helpern’s ironically serene sets of two middle-class households in Los Angeles; a nervy soundscape by Broken Chord; and a color palette from lighting designer Grant W.S. Yeager that covers the full hot-to-cool range on the emo spectrum.
Sonia Martinez (Zabryna Guevara, rocking this role) takes the occasion of her 40th birthday to have a meltdown. She “just needed some air” is her explanation for leaving her husband Ricardo (Teddy Canez) and daughter Jackie (Carmen Zilles) to pick up after themselves while she finds a safe spot where she can binge on chimichangas, her comfort food, and Zoloft, her comfort drug.
Ricardo, a fussbudget housekeeper and the best gardener in the entire neighborhood, doesn’t really miss his runaway wife because he’s swept up in a thrilling but illicit romance with Alejandro Lopez (Alfredo Narciso), his manly next-door neighbor.
Sonia’s absence is more deeply felt by her daughter Jackie, who has a smart mouth and a good brain but is badly in need of maternal advice about her own sexual identity issues.
But the person who is most distressed by Sonia’s disappearance is Alejandro’s daughter, Penelope (Xochitl Romero). As Jackie’s bff since childhood, the motherless Penelope has come to think of Sonia as her own mother. And since this know-it-all teen now suspects that she might be pregnant (by a local dope dealer, no less), she dreams up a plan to bring Sonia back home on the double.
If it weren’t for the torrid gay sex scenes and the filthy language and the bit about the drugs and the teenage pregnancy thing, this efficient plot might well serve for a sitcom through-line. Well, maybe not. But on its own outrageous terms, the material hits every comic base and in a few (delicately directed) scenes between concerned fathers and their too-clever-by-half daughters manages to be quite moving.
Canez and Narcisco are plenty funny as the oh-so-discreet middle-aged neighbors fumbling through awkward scenes of what one of them calls “awesome, soul-excavating sex.” But these sneaky lovers don’t put anything over on Guevara’s marvelously nuanced Sonia (“I knew they were fucking”), who is wounded by her husband’s betrayal but uses his indiscretions as an excuse to get away and take stock of her life.
Although Coppel refrains from making total fools or complete villains of parents who miss the distress signals their daughters are sending out, her warmest regards and best writing go to the girls. Zilles and Romero are spectacularly good as these endearing little monsters. Wise beyond their years but emotionally vulnerable, they use the scribe’s most generous gift — the remarkable vocabulary that they’ve made into their own private language — to hide their insecurities and protect themselves from whatever’s out there waiting for them. Good for them.