Bright Flashes

There are moments of astonishing brilliance in A Line Around the Block, Marga Gomez's darkly surreal yet deeply emotional tribute to her late father, the Cuban-born entertainer Willy Chevalier. Directed by Corey Madden with a minimal set by Michael Hooker and a sophisticated sound design by J. Raoul Brody, the show is disturbing, funny, and ungainly. That Gomez's still calling it a work-in-progress — it made a workshop debut at Josie's, traveled to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and is on its way to an off-Broadway opening next spring — attests to her uncertainty about this very mixed bag of tricks.

The play seesaws somewhat awkwardly between Marga and Willy, giving us first the bereaved performer-daughter, in a supposedly bad open-mike comedy club appearance, wearing a black dress and hat complete with veil. We then meet Willy, whose life ended in poverty, failure, and the dismal haze of substance abuse.

The show's problem is also its potential strength: The dramatic tension is between Marga the daughter (called, affectionately, “Miss Gomez” by Willy) and Marga the adult actor/writer whose fear seems to be that she is too much like her father to escape his fate; that like him she will eventually overreach herself professionally and wind up waiting tables and living alone.

But Gomez's personal nightmare seems too subjective to work dramatically. While her asides about her own career setbacks certainly ring true, the initial suggestion of failure backfires almost immediately. Her stand-up act, supposedly bombing in a big way, is funny. Really funny. She jokes about childhood, and how the family celebrated “all the Cuban traditions — that [Willy] made up,” such as the anniversary of the coup that put Castro in power: “We would ration the meat and then go on a long, dangerous boat ride.”

A scene in her father's tiny apartment where she tries to decide what to do with his “estate” — two bottles of painkillers — falls flat as she exacts an odd sort of revenge by making dozens of 976 toll calls. It's a bitter entry into the life of Willy Chevalier, who “lived onstage” and who in his heyday was one of the biggest Latino stars in New York.

In the focal segments, Gomez builds a detailed, rich, and astonishing portrait of her immigrant father. As Willy, she blusters, brags, and improvises face-saving tall tales (such as the irresistible story of him as an army cook, shooting Nazis over his shoulder while turning chicken).

We drop in at Teatro Espa–a where Willy plays, among other roles, Caballero 13, the superhero of a weekly serial drama. We hear how he met Gomez's mother (vividly memorialized in Marga's first solo piece, Memory Tricks) and see his stubborn optimism in action after their divorce: The mice his daughter fears in his filthy bachelor digs get cute names. A grueling radio-commercial recording session is topped off with a celebratory 2 a.m. steak dinner. And a big day out is spent at Orchard Beach, where seashells are rarer than broken beer bottles and syringes.

The true test of any characterization is how it resists or adapts to change. Gomez's portrait of her dreamer father is never more affecting than in the scenes following his final disaster, when he loses the theater he sank his life savings into. Forced to take a job entertaining at a sleazy Village restaurant, Willy, now a hopeless alcoholic and cocaine addict, abuses his girlfriend, disgusts his daughter, and then tries to minimize the damage: “Forgive me, please. Can you forgive me? Can someone please forgive me?”

At an hour and forty-five minutes without intermission, however, the show is cumbersome; and the final scene, Willy's stand-up routine from heaven, seems bizarre and off focus. Gomez's real-life adolescent and career obstacles read as intrusive complaints. It's as though she's afraid we'll be so charmed by her entertainer father that we'll fail to appreciate the human wreckage he left in his wake.

Not to worry. This is a complicated and unstinting portrait that makes full use of Gomez's real strengths as a performer, apparently inherited from Willy: an unflagging spirit and a chameleonlike ability to slip in and out of a variety of characters. It's a stunning achievement.

Brilliant Traces (directed by Pam McDaniel) is a straightforward romantic comedy about an unlikely couple who find each other in an unlikely way. Unfortunately, too much unlikeliness has the opposite effect of rendering ordinary the extraordinary. Sort of like multiplying two minus numbers and coming out with a plus. The romantic denouement is unavoidable, and any semblance of dramatic suspense is nil.

Playwright Cindy Lou Johnson has gone to great lengths to disguise this by setting the play in a remote Alaskan cabin, beautifully realized by designers Greg Pellegrini (whose sound effects provide a convincing arctic gale) and Torben Torp-Smith (lighting and set).

Rosannah DeLuce (Zachary Barton), having abandoned her dull fiance at the altar (which happens to be in Arizona), bursts into the snug cabin of Henry Harry (Phil Stockton) as a blizzard rages outside. She's wearing a bridal gown and satin shoes, and he cowers under a quilt until she collapses. He then tenderly removes her dress, covers her, and bathes her frostbitten fingers and toes with warm water. When she wakes, they begin the slow progress toward the inevitable.

The play is about desperation and people driven to the ends of the earth by the pain of their lives. Johnson's language is poetic as she paints her characters into emotional corners made all the more constricting by the landscape that literally disappears during a snowstorm. The title — a wonderful choice resonant with interpretive possibilities — is meant to refer to the traces of themselves people leave as evidence of having lived. As much as Rosannah and Henry wish they could disappear, they wind up distressingly visible to one another. Traces could also refer to a type of harness used on draft animals and might describe the way people are trapped and confined by their lives. Obviously, with not much happening in the way of dramatic development, I had lots of time to ponder the various implications of the title. I also had time to wish this director and cast had a better vehicle. McDaniel mines the emotional heart of the piece with her well-paced staging, and Barton's comic performance is finely tuned, poignant, and fresh. Stockton, looking appropriately startled throughout, has less to work with in Henry, a character who has made denial a way of life. He may not, as he claims, know what's going to happen next, but we sure do.

A Line Around the Block runs through Dec. 3 at Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint in S.F.; call 861-7933. Brilliant Traces runs through Nov. 19 at 450 Geary Studio Theatre in S.F.; call 346-7671.

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