Life, in all its messy glory, overflows the stage of the Atlantic Theater Company in this dynamically staged production of “Tell Hector I Miss Him.” Paola Lazaro’s animated ensemble piece unearths the volatile residents of a close-knit community living underground in Old San Juan, and a vibrant acting company — directed by David Mendizabal and featuring two “Orange Is the New Black” cast members — breathes life into every quirky character.
A dozen marginal people in this spirited city find safety and companionship underground, in the stone basement of an old Spanish fort. As the de facto leader of this alternative community, Mostro (in a muscular performance from Juan Carlos Hernandez) does his best to keep the peace. But he is constantly distracted by the sexual escapades of his hot wife, Samira (Selenis Leyva, better known as Gloria Mendoza in the Netflix series), who is irresistible to men.
But the real sex goddess around here is Malena (Dascha Polanco, also of “Orange Is the New Black”). Despite the adoration, Malena acknowledges that she’s not happy. “But I have a good time,” she says, making the distinction between true happiness and fun.
“You’re the most gorgeous woman I have ever seen in my life,” says 16-year-old Isis (Yadira Guevara-Prip, a real firecracker), so captivated that she follows this goddess around like a puppy.
The relationship of Mostro and Samira serves as the solid core of Lazaro’s whirlwind of a play. But there are lots of vivid characters and plentiful subplots in this colorful San Juan underworld — enough to keep director Mendizabal’s excellent ensemble on their toes and dancing like mad.
Alexander Flores shows his dramatic range as the teenaged Tono. He’s funny enough when recounting how he got kicked out of school for making sexual moves on his teacher: “I really thought she loved me!” he protests, and besides, “I just have a lot of energy, you know?” And he’s sincerely moving when begging his drunk of a mother (a nice performance from Lisa Ramirez) to dry out so he can leave home without feeling that he betrayed her.
Sean Carvajal is another eye-catcher. Sadly funny as Palito, a remarkably unsuccessful drug pusher whose brain was scrambled from fetal alcohol syndrome, he’s incredibly moving when the character is banished from the community for making rough moves on a woman. “Nobody likes me out there,” he wails, in genuine fear for his life. But there are rules of conduct in this safe community, and Mostro doesn’t flinch from enforcing them.
Lazaro writes characters who live and breathe on their own. There’s coked-up Hugo (Flaco Navaja), who has finally noticed that his beloved Maria has been carrying her toothbrush everywhere she goes. And sexy Tati (sexy Analisa Velez), who treats Palito like her slave but grudgingly admits that she enjoys sitting beside him and watching cartoons.
Individually and collectively, the inhabitants of this protective community are no clichéd caricatures but characters with multilayered dimensions. The idiomatic dialogue Lazaro puts into their mouths is as realistically filthy as it is fluent. Every character swears a blue streak, but none of them swears in the same way. In the scheme of things, that’s quite an achievement for a playwright — which makes it surprising that no one has yet claimed Lazaro’s glib tongue for some TV series.