References tells the story of a young Army wife named Gabriela who is waiting in Barstow for her husband, Benito, to return from the Gulf War. Her loneliness drives her into a dream world. She wanders naked in the back yard and fantasizes about the pubescent boy next door, who spies on her through a telescope. She imagines a romance with the moon, and aims her husband's pistol at the cacti. Her back yard is, in fact, a reference to Dali, with surrealistic talking animals (Cat and Coyote, played by Margo Hall and Benton Greene), a violin-playing moon who stands on the fridge (Michael Torres), and a faintly glowing desert backdrop. If the set refers to a specific painting, I don't know its title, but the idea is that Gabriela has undergone a cultural and psychological awakening in the year since Benito went to war.
At last he comes home, still wearing his desert fatigues. He wants to fuck, of course, but Gabi resists. They have a long, contrived fight about gender roles. Playwright Jose Rivera gradually makes clear that even this fight belongs to Gabriela's imagination, but I'm not sure her dreaminess can excuse the trite dialogue and unearned flights of poetry both characters indulge in. Gabi resents Benito's new soldier personality; Benito can't stand her squishy, newfound liberal politics. The PC fuck-me/ respect-me tango they dance feels forced, as if Rivera just wanted to put a feverishly contemporary argument onstage, not a realistic homecoming from the '91 war (which might be interesting), or even a unique impression of Gabriela's mind.
Sean San José plays a strong, visceral Benito, tense and undersexed from the war; he's a proud Puerto Rican enlisted man who believes the Army has given him not just a way out of poverty but also an ethic of courage. He can be tender, imploring, or ferociously angry; he lapses into Spanish obscenities when Gabriela spurns him. San José registers the range of emotion with nuance and power, straining only when the character himself has been overwritten. (Benito's horniness is over the top.)
Caridad Francisca is less unleashed as Gabi; her toughness and mystical awe seem labored. This may be a function of the writing. Gabi's character seems insubstantial, even when Rivera explains her behavior. She dances around the yard with a pistol in one hand, apparently seduced by the promise of the moon, who comes down to dance with her and behaves like an anti-Benito, uttering words of art and love. "Jorge Luis Borges," he says. "Macondo. Bukowski." "References to Salvador Dali make me hot," she answers. This is funny, but the overall effect falls flat. If this portrait of Gabriela wants to show a woman falling out of love with her man, then Rivera has filled in the reasons for her sea change like answers to a standardized test.
The show has energy, though. Torres is an entertaining moon, dressed in a bow tie and silver silk robe, eternally resentful that Shakespeare once called him "inconstant." Greene, as Coyote, squats and growls and stares hungrily at Cat, who's played primly by Hall in loose black curls and glittering jewels. ("I'll knock you around so much all nine of your lives will have orgasms," says Coyote, to which Cat replies, "I can't do that. I'm fixed.") Director Hector Correa paces the show well, with a keen sense of silence as well as bickering noise.
The best scene, in fact, is a quiet one, just before Benito and Gabi have sex. He drops his horny swaggering; she drops her political defensiveness; and Benito kisses her legs one scar and blemish at a time. He playfully asks how she earned each mark, and she answers, modestly, as if he didn't already know. (It seems to be a game.) San José and Francisca slip easily into character and evoke a moment of honest feeling. The moment is fleeting, though: After sex Gabriela decides to get up and leave Benito -- for no reason, and for good.
The whole play feels just as abrupt. Rivera's Dali-esque blend of fantasy and realism has a certain appeal, especially in a mundane setting like Barstow, Calif.; but the dialogue doesn't do its work.