Latino Chicago Theater Company

“America is not Ozzie and Harriet. It’s fat-assed K mart shoppers.” So says Julie, the seemingly normal daughter of alcoholic Ray and eccentric Thelma in Luis Alfaro’s Bitter Homes and Gardens. In this dark comedy about a Hispanic American family, life in suburbia is not what the characters expected. Not for Ray, who works at Sears, drinks too much, and cheats on his wife. Not for Thelma, the trapped housewife who rebels by wearing nothing but her slip, a pair of red pumps, and earrings. Not for Julie, a nurse who secretly administers mercy killings to her patients at the hospital. And not for Eric, the son who worked at 7-Eleven until he shot his boss and was sent to prison.

This is the modern Hispanic American family, Alfaro suggests, inviting us into their home to see what their life is really like. The invitation is literal, a concept Alfaro toys with throughout the play. The audience enters the theater through the front door of Ray and Thelma’s home: a nice, white suburban door, with a half-moon window and a shiny brass knocker. It’s as if the audience were sitting in Ray and Thelma’s living room–the characters know they’re putting on a show, addressing the audience occasionally, making remarks to each other about who gets the most stage time and about their fears that Ray might do something embarrassing.

But really, all they want to do is tell their own stories–tales of the American dream rotting from the inside out. At times this play feels like a Hispanic take on Edward Albee’s black comedies–like Albee, Alfaro caricatures silly people in a vapid society. But during the monologues, he tries to give these people souls.

Bitter Homes and Gardens is a touchy script. It operates on a number of different levels, weaving together madcap humor, macabre deaths, and profound questions about cultural identity and memory. Add to this the fact that the characters are aware they’re in a play about their own lives and you’ve got a complicated piece of theater. But unfortunately this production, directed by Michelle Banks, doesn’t quite sort it all out.

Perhap Alfaro’s script is too complicated for anybody to sort out. There are too many loose ends and undefined emotions. Ray and Thelma (Gustavo Mellado and Yolanda Nieto Custer) feel that “everything’s changed.” But how everything used to be is never made clear. Thelma talks about bake-offs and making tortillas. She remembers good sex with Ray, and mourns the weight of time that has pulled at her breasts and plumped out her waist. Ray complains about how every Mexican who has a job also has some white person on his back. The only monologue that seems to have some logical relation to the rest of the play is Eric’s, about why he shot his boss.

Banks does give us an entertaining play that moves along at a good pace and offers a few laughs. But she hasn’t analyzed the script carefully enough to bring out a theme, to communicate any clear ideas. Again, the script may be partly at fault. At the beginning of the play Thelma presents Julie with a cello, telling her that the “world is fucked” and that she’s going to need the cello someday to help her get through. At the end, after a crucial drive-by shooting, Julie picks the cello up. Perhaps it’s meant to be a metaphor, perhaps it’s meant to frame the confused action of this play; but like just about every other element here, it seems a fish out of water.