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A CurtainUp Review

"The only person you have to face is yourself."—Joe
Jake Cannavale and Felix Solis
(Photo: Sandra Couvert)
It's reasonable to suggest that you need three things for a great production of live theater: acting, directing and a high quality script. Usually these elements work in tandem. A terrible show usually won't have any of them, and a great one will have all in ample evidence.

But occasionally you run into a show where one part is so good it almost makes the quality of the other ones insignificant. That's the situation with the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's new play Basilica, running now at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre. It's sometimes frustrating, occasionally brilliant and deeply compelling.

The play follows the life of the Garzas, a lower middle-class family trying to survive a painfully bad economy and the suffocating environment of San Juan, Texas. Lela (Selenis Levya) is the moral and human center of the family, holding together a mismatched pair of children — Jessica (Yadira Guevara-Prip) and Ray (Jake Cannavale of Showtime's Nurse Jackie fame), and her husband Joe (Felix Solis), a former high school football star who's fallen into an undeniable but comfortable rut of daytime work and nighttime benders at the local bar.

Despite Lela's influence, faith isn't easy to sell to the rest of the Garzas or their friends, and when Father Gil (Alfredo Narciso) returns to San Juan as its new pastor after leaving the town after high school, Lela finds herself as doubtful about the future as those who surround her.

The past is always prologue in this setting, and as the play progresses it becomes clear that escaping the pull of that past will be just as challenging as surviving the present. Accordingly, playwright Mando Alvarado is at pains to emphasize the ways each character needs to develop on his/her own terms. He is aided by a well-conceived physical environment (the excellent set by Raul Abrego ties together house, bar and church in a clever and provocative way) and solid directing from Jerry Ruiz, who trusts his actors enough not to interfere with their natural instincts and allows them to explore the limits of their characters.

This decision by Ruiz plays to the show's greatest strength: the cast is universally excellent, with even the comparably less important characters of Lou Helms-Garza (Rosal Colon) and Cesar Cantu (Bernardo Cubria) made intriguing and real by their performers. Cannavale is solid as Ray, who feels out of step both with his friends and family, and Guevara-Prip renders the yearning loneliness of twelve year old Jessica with intelligence and compassion. Levya turns in a powerful performance as Lela, and Narciso is equally compelling as Father Gil. His sermon towards the end of the production, delivered with equal measures of anger and self-loathing, is utterly riveting.

But the star of the show is Solis, whose mixture of humor, rage, and machismo married with deep compassion and a sense of responsibility is pitch-perfect. It would be easy to make Joe into a caricature of drunken excess; instead he comes off as completely human, and his performance, including the powerful final scene, is an absolute triumph. This is one of the best performances I've seen, and I don't make that statement lightly.

It's a shame,then, that for all of the interest generated by the characters, that the plot is relentlessly predictable, and the twists generally obvious from a long way off. The staged production departs fairly significantly from the original script of the play on several occasions, and I'm not convinced the changes help. But most of all, I'm not convinced Alvarado's story really does justice to the people within it. At its core this is really a not very subtle melodrama, and that seems like an unfortunate waste of both time and talent.

Yet as odd as it sounds, the acting is so good that I'm inclined to overlook my significant reservations with the story. If you can focus on the characters themselves rather than the overarching plot to which they're forced to conform, you'll find a compelling representation of humanity at the Cherry Lane Theater.

By Mando Alvarado
Director: Jerry Ruiz
Cast: Jake Cannavale (Ray Garza), Rosal Colon (Lou Helms-Garza), Bernardo Cubria (Cesar Cantu), Yadira Guevara-Prip (Jessica Garza), Selenis Levya (Lela Garza), Alfredo Narciso (Father Gil), Felix Solis (Joe Garza)
Set Design: Raul Abrego
Costume Design: Carisa Kelly
Lighting Design: Burke Brown
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Running time: Two hours with a fifteen minute intermission
The Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, (212) 989-2020
From 5/9/13 to 6/16/13, opening 5/23/13
Tuesday-Saturday @ 8 p.m., Saturday @ 2 p.m., Sunday @ 3 p.m.
Tickets: $76.00
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on May 21st press performance
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