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Review: Latino Life

TheatreWorks tries to encompass the whole of Latino family history in culture in 'Sunsets and Margaritas'

JUST LAST WEEK, a man walked up to me and asked what my nationality was. “Half-Mexican, half-Italian,” I told him—my stock response. I get asked that a lot. I’m half-Mexican, but the half of me that is Mexican isn’t very “Mexican” at all. My family is what Sunsets and Margaritas playwright José Cruz González would call “assimilated.” My dad made meatloaf and casserole for dinner, and both he and his sisters learned Spanish in school. I don’t claim to know much about present-day Latino culture, because it’s something I was never really a part of. But I know enough to know that even though Sunsets and Margaritas makes a good effort to represent the entire culture in two hours, it falls short.

Making its West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Sunsets and Margaritas is a comedy about the Serrano family, four generations of Mexican-Americans trying to relate to one another. After his aging father, Calendario (“Candi” for short), crashes his car into the side of the family restaurant, Gregorio begins to face the decision to put his father in a home. Along with his daughter, son, wife and restaurant employee, he tries to track down Dad, who’s gone missing in the sea of protesters that have overrun their small Colorado town that day to fight for workers’ rights.

The play highlights the way each generation is markedly different from the next and whether that represents a loss of culture or just a shift in it. The raw material is the stuff that immigrants and the families of immigrants have worked with time and again. Sunsets and Margaritas, however, tries so hard to educate its audience on the authentic Latino experience that it ends up tangled in its own good intentions. The biggest problem is that the play sometimes gets so wrapped up in its own silliness that it loses sight of its message of family and sometimes nudges that fine line between poking fun and offending. For instance, paralyzed son Jojo (Miles Gaston Villanueva) rides a tricked-out wheelchair covered in blue velour and equipped with hydraulics that bump to the beat of a “Low Rider”-like tune at the press of a button. The most believable person onstage is Papa Candi (Daniel Valdez), who comes off as human rather than as a caricature.

Sunsets and Margaritas tries to deliver the Mexican-American experience through the filter of family, something we can all understand, but is so busy trying to catch us up on a couple hundred years of Mexican history that it leaves little time for us to see these characters as people. Even when it tries to prove to us that the characters can be 3-D—daughter Gabby is a gay, Latina Republican who speaks with a Valley girl accent—it does so in a hurry and with blunt force. Every cultural nuance is explained in exhausting detail—references to La Llorona, the Virgin of Guadalupe and illegal immigration cause all action to stop while a character recites a brief history of its significance in the Latino community.

However, there is a good chance that my background filter is hampering my view. After all, the playwright, the cast, the director and others are all Latinos, who, presumably, had a more authentic experience than I did. They probably know better if the play works or not. Maybe I should stop and enjoy my life’s sunsets and margaritas.

SUNSETS AND MARGARITAS, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm (no 2pm show Apr 3) and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (no 7pm show April 4) through April 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24–$62. (650.463.1960)