The divide between premium cable TV and Broadway just got a little fuzzier. "Latinologues," which opened Thursday, would seem to be better suited to the confines of the small screen than a large stage.
But here it is, live and in person at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre: four performers, including creator Rick Najera, riffing superficially on what it means to be Hispanic in America circa 2005.
This parade of monologues is a hit-and-miss affair, depending on who is performing. Najera, a portly, ingratiating fellow, comes off best. He has a sly stage presence and he does create several characters that, if they don't break through the stereotypes that permeate the evening, are, nevertheless, often funny - even if you don't understand Spanish.
Most notably there is Buford Gomez, a redneck border guard ("I put the panic to the Hispanic") who works at a crossing between the United States and Mexico.
Gomez works his way through descriptions of several Spanish-speaking nationalities, from Mexicans to Puerto Ricans to Dominicans to Cubans, Argentineans and Colombians: "Puerto Ricans are legal Mexicans. They are born with citizenship"; "Dominicans are Mexicans who play baseball really well."
The comic also portrays what he calls the Latino no one talks about - the Latino professional. In this case, he is a gay Hollywood producer.
Eugenio Derbez, a celebrated comedian in Mexico, gets stranded by several of the characters he plays, although his portrait of a Mexican mama, complete with curlers in her hair and a crucifix, is a crowd favorite.
Rene Lavan misfires with several others, most notably a busboy who makes a serious claim for being a macho Latin lover.
The show's lone female comic, a striking Shirley A. Rumierk, shows promise. She portrays a young woman proclaiming her child's virgin birth: "This baby is a miracle." Even better is her portrait of the outgoing queen of a Puerto Rican Day parade, a tough-talking princess unwilling to give up her crown.
The evening is short, barely 90 minutes, but it feels skimpier than that. Director Cheech Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame, places his performers center stage and lets them do their routines, much like standup, as if they were in a tacky nightclub.
Unlike the autobiographical works of Colombian-born John Leguizamo, such as "Freak" and "Sexaholic," "Latinologues" doesn't dig very deep into the personal. It settles for the easy sitcom laugh, a mistake in any language.
Perhaps the Helen Hayes Theater should be renamed the Theater of Ethnic Comedy.
In the spring, the Hayes was home to the ethnic humor of Jackie Mason. The theater's newest tenant is "Latinologues," a collection of sketches about Latins living in America, which have been directed by Cheech Marin, formerly of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong.
The monologues were written by Rick Najera, who also performs some of them, including one of the funniest, which presents a swishy Hollywood executive in charge of making movies for Latinos. His knowledge of Spanish is in inverse proportion to his pretentions. It is a hilarious idea, and Najera performs it expertly.
Some of the material is very broad. Shirley A. Rumierk, for example, plays the Miss Puerto Rican Day Parade winner who, on her last day, refuses to surrender her crown, a wild idea she exploits with gusto.
Some of the material is surreal, such as one of the monologues Najera has given to Eugenio Derbez, who is Mexico's leading comic. In this one, Derbez plays the mother of a Hispanic vampire, bringing his own brand of weirdness to an already grotesque creation.
In one of the more successful monologues, Rene Lavan plays a busboy who imagines he's on the success track but whose talent goes mostly into womanizing. He invests the character with enough heart to avoid making him seem what he easily might - a cartoon.
Not everything, unfortunately, is played so skillfully. in another Derbez performance, for example, he plays a female prostitute whose turf is the not-very-lucrative Havana under Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. We ought to feel more sympathy for her than we do, but it is hard to get past her coarseness - a choice doubtless aided and abbetted by director Marin.
The same overkill is apparent in an interesting sketch about rescued boy Elian Gonzalez.
Some of the humor stems from the rivalries among Latino communities in New York. A lot of the punch lines are in Spanish, which makes some of us feel like, well, gringos.
But overall, "Latinologues" is filled with ribald spirits, incredible energy and great talent.
Come back, Jackie Mason! All is forgiven!
In recent seasons, Mr. Mason has been the go-to guy for ethnic humor on Broadway, but he's observing a well-deserved season sabbatical for now. Taking up residence at the Helen Hayes Theater, where he recently held court, is "Latinologues," a comic revue allowing audiences of Hispanic extraction to indulge in the kind of exuberant self-mockery that Mr. Mason's Jewish audiences delight in. Naturally, the alien tribe gets strafed with a stray punch line, too, although this time around the goys are called gringos.
Created and written by Rick Najera and directed by Cheech Marin, long since de-Chonged, "Latinologues" is not, strictly speaking, an evening of stand-up comedy. The production, which opened last night, is a series of loosely linked monologues delivered in character by four prominent Latino performers.
Joining Mr. Najera onstage are Eugenio Derbez, a boyish, versatile comedian known for his television shows in Mexico; Rene Lavan, a handsome, Cuban-born actor whose résumé includes stints on telenovelas and supporting roles in Hollywood movies and television shows; and Shirley A. Rumierk, a native New Yorker and Harvard graduate with a pleasingly idiosyncratic beauty.
Mr. Najera is a veteran of the sketch-comedy television shows "Mad TV" and "In Living Color," and his writing displays an irrepressible affinity for the rat-a-tat rhythms of laugh-track comedy. Nominally portraying a border patrol agent named Buford Gomez, he soon breaks out of character to deliver a spiel dividing Latinos into various constituencies and lampooning their defining characteristics.
"Any Cubans here?" he asks the audience. "One lone Cuban. Seems like a hundred, didn't it? That's what I love about Cuban people. They exaggerate about everything. They say things like, 'Back in Havana, my dog was a German shepherd; here he's a Chihuahua.' If every Cuban had as much land as they say they had in Cuba, Cuba would be a continent, not an island."
Mr. Najera and his compadres can skillfully sling one-liners, but the characters he has cooked up to transmit them are neither fresh nor fully realized. In contrast to the colorfully individualized portraits in John Leguizamo's solo shows, the men and women of "Latinologues" are composites of worn, obvious stereotypes. The sample Mr. Najera draws from the Latino population includes a dishwasher hoping to get deported so he can save on plane fare to Puerto Vallarta (Mr. Derbez, speaking in a thickly accented nasal chirp that may be intended as a winking reference to Speedy Gonzales); a busboy (Mr. Lavan) boasting of his sexual allure (and you thought you'd never again hear the gag "Coffee, tea or me?"); and a ruthless drug lord, played by Mr. Najera, who again blurs the line between character and comedian by concluding the skit with a long riff inspired by a death-row inmate whose last meal included a Diet Coke. "Are you really that worried about the extra calories?" he wonders.
Ms. Rumierk works especially hard to humanize a pair of Mr. Najera's particularly loosely structured creations, a young Dominican woman who styles herself the Virgin of the Bronx despite her visible pregnancy (she communed with an angel, she thinks) and a Cuban prostitute who strikes a hollowly poignant note in a monologue that makes strained use of the phrase "Cuba libre." Given freer rein and better material, Ms. Rumierk is vastly more engaging as a pageant winner in a Puerto Rican Day parade who turns violent at the prospect of giving up her tiara. Mr. Lavan and Mr. Derbez also bring charisma and brio to their performances, but the consistently inconsistent writing lets them down, and a more sharp directorial hand from Mr. Marin would not be amiss either.
The show is slapdash in some less significant respects, too. While Kevin Adams has lighted the stage with admirable meticulousness, the photographs used to add background appear to have been taken by a Kodak throwaway from the drugstore, and at the performance reviewed, a slide accompanying a segment on the "Mexican Moses" misspelled exodus ("exouds," it read) and the name of the pop singer Marc Anthony.
"Latinologues" has been seen, in some version, in many American cities with large Latino populations, suggesting that it is serving a real need. As the odd gringo out in the audience, duty compels me to report that the cheerful folks surrounding me did seem to find Mr. Najera's broad-brush portraits of Latino experience endearing. ("Latinologues" is performed in English, but the characters often embroider their monologues with profanities in Spanish.)
In any case, some kinds of comedy transcend translation. The evening's most crowd-pleasing sequence finds Mr. Derbez portraying a doting mother who suspects her beloved son, sleeping in the next room well into the day, is a vampire. With his head ringed in cheap plastic curlers and his face smeared with lipstick and powder, Mr. Derbez, primly clutching a giant wooden rosary, had the audience in stitches - this critic included - before he'd said a word, a reminder that willfully bad drag is among those special forms of humor that cross all cultural borders.
The voice at the beginning of "Latinologues" explains, in both English and in Spanish, that the series of comic sketches which opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre will be performed "in 99 percent English ... because we don't want the Anglos confused."
True to its promise, the 90-minute show is not likely to confuse theatergoers accustomed to finding themselves reflected back onto their concepts of themselves at more conventional Broadway offerings.
Nor, unfortunately, is it likely to be as broadly amusing as its personable performers appear to believe it is.
"Latinologues," featuring a photo of director Cheech Marin outside to reassure passersby of its cross cultural appeal, is almost as mainstream as the John Leguizamo monologues that broke the Latino barrier on Broadway more than a dozen years ago.
Edgy, however, this is not. The scenarios, written by Rick Najera and performed here by him and three other actors, are mostly sentimental character studies that rely on long-proven traditions of ethnic recognition humor. Thus, although the words are almost completely understandable, we sense from the audience reaction that the ah-hah pleasures of cultural identification have a greater kick within the diversity of the Hispanic community.
The show, produced in smaller venues and other incarnations around the country for almost a decade, has some fun differentiating between the different Central and South American cultures. Since both Najera and Marin (of Cheech and Chong sweet infamy) come from the Chicano-driven cultures of California and the Southwest, the primary sensibility is Mexican-American. Or, as Najera as a nicely sarcastic Border Patrol officer puts it, "Puerto Ricans are legal Mexicans ... Venezuelans are Mexicans with oil."
Eugenio Derbez, one of Mexico's leading comic actors, is wonderful as the pious woman who inches her chair closer and closer to the audience to confide about her son, the vampire. Shirley A. Rumierk, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, has a virtuosic way with changing layers of personalities. But she is often better than her material, especially the cliched scene about a prostitute in Cuba.
Rene Lavan, born in Cuba, brings poignance to the disconnect between Latin machismo and humiliating work as a bus boy. He is also saddled with the shamelessly manipulative 9/11 scene.
Najera is wickedly satiric about Latinos who know nothing about their culture but are hired by Hollywood to feed movies to the rich new market. He is also especially sharp as the boarder patrol officer. When we are not assaulted by banks of colored lights, projections on the back wall – especially one of a hole in a boarder fence -- are effective.
There are a few too many chick-sacrifice jokes, a definite anti-Castro political leaning, and an inability to find anything to say about Dominicans besides their baseball talents. Every once in a while, a character tosses off some quick throwaway in Spanish and much of the audience cracks up. Wish we were there.
Politically incorrect humor is at its safest when delivered by members of a targeted group to members of that targeted group. So there was little danger in the air at a recent preview of Latinologues (**1/2 out of four), writer/actor Rick Najera's irreverent homage to the fastest-growing segment of the American population.
Najera and the three other gifted performers featured in the new Broadway production of his show, which opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre, are all of Latin extraction. Their heritage was apparently shared by much of the Saturday afternoon audience, which laughed heartily at jabs directed at Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
In truth, while non-Spanish-speaking fans may miss a few references in Latinologues, much of Najera's material is too patently affectionate, or hokey, to rile anyone.
Still, as breezily directed by Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong fame, Najera and company deliver some jokes and insights that should cross cultural boundaries.
Some bits offer more sober commentary on issues such as immigration and the kind of oppression immigrants seek to escape. Rene Lavan has a poignant moment as a janitor whose pursuit of the American dream was disrupted on Sept. 11, while Shirley A. Rumierk turns up as a Cuban prostitute who solicits an Anglo tourist with increasing desperation.
Latinologues ends on a wacky note with a serious subtext, as the death of an immigrant leads other characters to reflect once more on the necessity and efficacy of borders. A patrolman played by Najera observes that they might be viewed as things we share rather than things that divide us. At its best, Latlnologues suggests that the same holds true for comedy.