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A CurtainUp Review

Unmerciful Good Fortune
By Les Gutman

Last night I tried to fly. Like a butterfly.
.... There are no butterflies in The Bronx.

---Luz, the sick, suffering mother in Edwin Sánchez's play
Yetta Gottesman and Liza Colón Zayas
Yetta Gottesman and Liza Colón Zayas
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

It has taken an unmerciful length of time, but New York audiences finally have a chance to see a fine production of this stunning (award-winning) early play by Eddie Sánchez. Judging by the sparse crowd the night I attended (a brittle-cold Tuesday in wind-swept Hell's Kitchen but so what?), it's an opportunity that's being lost. I don't do this often, but I urge readers to sacrifice whatever is on their agenda and make time to see this brutally-honest, uncommonly-affecting drama. As I've said in the three prior Sánchez plays I've reviewed (all linked below), there are not many young playwrights writing today with the mystical passion and poetry that are this one's stock-in-trade.

At the center of the story is Maritza (Yetta Gottesman), a serious young Puerto Rican woman who has overcome her surroundings to become an Assistant District Attorney in The Bronx. At work, she must contend with her politically-ambitious boss, Paul (Liam Torres), and her pragmatic friend, a fellow D.A., Jeremy (Michael Ray Escamilla). At home, she has a dying mother, Luz (Michelle Rios), who frets that Maritza resists settling down with a man (she is a single mother), and fantasizes about Maritza's twin sister, who died as a child. Maritza is more like her father, Pito (Carlos Molina), an older man deeply in love with Luz and unable to imagine life without her. Yet Luz is now in unbearable pain.

Into Maritza's life comes Fátima (Liza Cólon Zayas), a fast-food worker who came of age in tough girl gangs that Maritza eschewed. Fátima has a "gift," the ability to read a person's mind, and future, by holding their hand. Putting people out of the intractable misery from which she divines they suffer is how she justifies the string of murders she is charged with committing -- she poisoned the burgers of over two dozen of them. Her own prospects are of course now equally intractable.

Fátima falls in love with Maritza, and (for the first time, it seems) Maritza responds in kind. Conflicting emotions bombard her as she wrestles with what's right and wrong in relation to the situations of both of these women, and her own actions. There is a rich, ceaselessly-intense quality to the poetry with which Sánchez addresses the nature of mercy and the human soul, but it is infused nonetheless with an abiding sense of love.

Sánchez never massages emotions into more palatable forms: they can be both raw and unpleasant, but they never feel overwrought. He also avoids peppering his plays with gratuitous humor that would lighten the audiences burden. Finally, his plays are marked by a distinctly Latin flavor, but without the sort of caricatures that feed predictability as they undercut universality. Under Max Ferrá's sure-footed direction, the splendid assembled cast is pitch-perfect in rendering these sensibilities.

Ms. Gottesman's Maritza combines a disciplined earnestness with vulnerability, shifting gears in another direction entirely when she is called upon to feed her fever-dreaming mother's delusional conversations with Maritza's long-dead but here vixenly vivacious twin sister. Liza Zayas is deliciously adept at conveying Fátima's rough, street-schooled exterior as well as the well-intentioned if enigmatic compassion she administers and the softer-edged longing and affection exposed. The pained weakness of both parents is portrayed poignantly and effectively by Molina and Rios; Ms. Rios's performance is excruciatingly memorable.

Van Santvoord has provided a set consisting of several areas which remain fixed, obscured when not in use. Much of the time, the actors remain in place, a choice which underscores the extent to which one part of Maritza's life may sometimes be out of sight but is rarely out of mind. Costume, sound and lighting design are all most apt.

In Sánchez's last play we reviewed, Icarus, the central character, loosely following the myth, vainly swims into the ocean toward the setting sun. Here, Luz looks to the heavens and wishes to soar off in that direction. Both are elegant metaphors for these sadly beautiful plays, which seek to become unhitched from earthbound considerations and contemplate that which lies beyond.

Review of Icarus
Review of Barefoot Boy With Shoes On
Review of Clean

by Edwin Sánchez
Directed by Max Ferrá
with Liza Colón Zayas, Yetta Gottesman, Michelle Rios, Carlos Molina, Michael Ray Escamilla and Liam Torres
Set Design: Van Santvoord
Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti
Lighting Design: Ed McCarthy
Sound Design: Johnna Doty
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
INTAR 53, 508 West 53rd Street (10/11 Avs.) Telephone (212) 279-4200 March 28-29, April 8, 13-14 and 17-19 @8, April 8 and 14 @ 3; $20
Opening 3/23/01 Closing 4/19/01 .
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/27/01 performance

Unmerciful Good Fortune is performed in repertory with:

Miriam's Flowers, by Migdalia Cruz, March 30-31, April 3-5, 15 and 20-21 (set in the South Bronx in 1975, a fragile Puerto Rican family is devastated by the violent death of the youngest child) and

Giants have us in their books, by José Rivera, April 1, 6-7, 10-12 and 22 ("Six Children's Plays for Adults" sharing an apocalyptic view of the world in which the mundane and the fantastic coëxist)

as a part of INTAR's series entitled "Nuyorican Voices". Tickets for the series of three plays are $45.

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