In the demented, clutch-popping and mud puddle shallow Learn To Be Latina (Mixed Blood Theatre, through May 13), by Enrique Urueta, a sweet-tempered, blissfully open Lebanese-American (clear emphasis on the latter), Hanan Mashalani, is informed that although she exhibits serious musical talent, her Arabic background will never do. We will assume, since we’re all morons, that Hanan carries a bomb in her purse. She needs fresh ethnicity. Hm. What to do. Let’s ask nasty Mary.
Enter Mary O’Malley, ethnic consultant. Ms. O’Malley is possessed of a thick north-of-Ireland brogue, a Señor Wences hand-puppet and a truly ugly orange wig. She comes in seated in a moving barca-lounger, pushed by her manic assistants Jill, Bill and Will. O’Malley opines that ethnicity “is as negotiable as a back alley hooker,” and although “black is great if you’re yellow,” Hanan won’t pass as African. Ergo: she must become – drum roll – Latina. Surely this will work – look at Salma and Shakira, both, after all, part-Lebanese.
Hanan (now Hanán) undergoes a 12 week Latina training, during which she receives a bogus background (“I was born in Buenos Aires”) and a slinky red dress with matching heels. She earns a place on Elena’s frenetic (everything is frenetic in this play) talk-show on which, even after 12 weeks of training, she mispronounces “Aires” (it’s a tough word).
Learn To Be Latina repeats a pattern: just as Hanan is about to say no, I want nothing to do with this ethnicity-shifting nonsense, Mary O’Malley holds out the glittering promise of fame and fortune. Hanan salivates and soldiers on.
Finally, though, she meets the play’s saving grace: the lovely Blanca. Hanan and Blanca (called by the other characters, for unfathomable reasons, Office Bitch) fall in love and their sweet passion is a wonder. We are admonished, in a sign in the Mixed Blood lobby, to “check [our] puritan ethics at the door.” My guess is that this refers to the exuberant and ardent kissing done by these two women. I found it enchanting and I found Mary’s reaction (“You will write 1000 times ‘Good Latinas don’t eat cunt'”) more than a little offensive.
As Blanca, Hope Cervantes, wholesome, charming and astonishingly appealing, very nearly steals the show. I thanked the great god Thespis every time she walked onstage. Jamie Elvey as Hanan is similarly wonderful. Her unflagging sweetness in the face of Mary’s unrelenting meanness keeps the play moving. As Mary, Aditi Kapil is gruesomely effective, giving this disagreeable character size and genuine power. Her brogue is excellent. Good performances are also given by Bonni Allen, Seth Tucker and Brian Skellenger as, respectively, Jill, Will and Bill. It took a great deal of skill for their timing to be so spot on. And George Keller excels as the high-pitched Elena.
I’m worried about Mixed Blood; they have now presented two vapid, poorly constructed and unfunny farces in a row. This is the theater that produced the magisterial Ruined and the Kapil’s terrific and pyrotechnic Agnes Under The Big Top. They will shortly announce their 12-13 season. Let’s hope they get themselves back on track.
For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.