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Knives and Other Sharp Objects
By Elyse Sommer
The patriarchs at the play's center are two brothers who have chosen different life paths. Jaime (Jaime Tirelli), the younger brother, has pursued the American dream. He moved to Austin, Texas and married Lydia (a marvelously cold and bitchy Candy Buckley), an unhyphenated American, and made lots of money working for an oil company. The older brother, who we never see, has chosen to remain in his Mexican border home town. His having turned his back on his brother's offer to help him to also become rich and assimilated has caused an estrangement so that there's been little contact between the men, their wives or their daughters. But now the older brother is dying and his wife has asked Jaime to take in her girls so that they would be spared the pain of watching their father's suffering. Jaime has agreed to take them in and pay for Beatrice (Noemi Del Rio) to attend the same Catholic school where his own younger daughter Lucy (Ana Nogueira) is enrolled. Alex (Joselin Reyes), Beatrice's older sister, who had been making a life for herself in Mexico but came home to be with the family, comes along mostly to protect Beatrice and keep her out of trouble.
The play begins with the two border town sisters on a a bus headed to their relatives' home (Sarah Sidman's lighting manages to evoke the sense of being on a bus even though it consists of just two chairs). Castillo's dialogue colorfully and naturally fills in lots of important plot details. That first scene, with a strong assist from Reyes' and Nogueira's excellent performances, establishes the sister dynamic and gives us a lot of family history.
The tensions that the sisters are leaving behind turns out to have its counterpart in Austin. It seems Uncle Jaime has been fired from his job and the family has had to downsize to a smaller house. Compared to what Alex and Beatrice are used to, they're still pretty well off but the change in status and income has take its toll on Lydia's and Jaime's marriage and had Lydia been consulted the nieces would not have been invited for this extended visit.
While the situation is a chance for the cousins to get to know each other and be friends, it also underscores the cultural differences within the family. For the already unhappy Jaime living with his nieces brings fresh awareness of what abandoning his roots has cost him. Alex's protectiveness of her sister points to the sturdiness of family ties that's lacking in the Americanized Austin family. An overlapping scene between Lydia and her daughter and Alex (as stand-in mother) and Lydia potently illustrates the different values.
As if there weren't enough complications in the lives of these uprooted sisters and the troubled household in which they are temporarily re-planted, there are two subplots, not to mention a homosexual element. The main one involves Manuel (Michael Ray Escamilla), another Mexican-American. He enters the picture during the girls' bus trip to Austin and is in even more of a crisis than they are (a family revenge act that went further than intended). I won't go into details about his backstory, but it brings on a sinister additional character named Eddie (David Anzuelo) and becomes closely but somewhat distractingly interwoven with the main plot.
The second subplot introduces Harvey (Ed Vasallo) and Perry (Angelo Rosso), two Army guardsmen who Loren (Amanda Perez) (accompanied by an unenthusiastic Alex) picks up at a Hooter's Bar & Grill . Hooter's is also used for a pickup scene in Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong, And Those Who Love Them (review) currently at the Public's Newman Theater. It's easy to understand why Durang and Castillo both thought this chain's self-proclaimed "delightfully tacky yet unrefined" atmosphere perfectly suited to their plays. Given the economic pressures felt by non-profit theaters, it would be nice if Hooter's repaid this coincidental double plug with a contribution to the Public Theater.
Though director Felix Solis keeps the additional plot strands from turning into too much of a tangle, they do tend to detract from the more powerful and primary family drama. This is especially true for the business with the Guardsmen. Manuel's story is more in keeping with the theme of shifting and colliding cultures and does give us the captivating Michael Ray Escamilla as Manuel. It's also Manuel who explains the meaning of the knife in the title ("I've been carrying around this knife with me for a long time. It belonged to my father. And his father before that. I inherited it after my old man passed away. When I was a boy, I used to stare at this knife like it was something magnificent. Like if it had all the power in the world and I couldn't wait till one day it was all mine. But I don't want it no more. I want you to take it from me").
Knives and Other Sharp Plays will be at the Shiva for just another week. It's well worth seeing even though it needs more work to realize its full potential.