The Goodman Theatre couldn’t possibly have known how much Puerto Rican identity would be in the news when it scheduled José Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted (see Albert Williams’s in-depth review at chicagoreader.com) and the Teatro Vista/Collaboraction coproduction of Migdalia Cruz’s El Grito del Bronx for overlapping runs. But with Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the unique role of Puerto Ricans in American life—U.S. citizens in law, colonial subjects in reality—has taken center stage.
Cruz has other concerns, though. Unlike Rivera’s play, in which a couple’s decision to leave Puerto Rico for the mainland determines their relationship, El Grito del Bronx is set in the U.S., and the cultural background of the characters is of less importance than their violent family history.
There are some glancing similarities between the plays, mostly in the way they contrast their characters’ early lives and dreams with where they finish. But Cruz’s unwieldy script doesn’t make that trajectory clear for Lulu (Sandra Delgado) and Papo (Juan Villa), who share a hellish childhood in the Bronx under their given names of Magdalena and Jesus. The Colón family, headed by abusive patriarch Jóse (Eddie Torres) and passive saint Maria (Diane Herrera), falls apart after Jesus, an aspiring actor, takes bloody revenge on his monstrous father with a hammer. Apparently unaware that her son committed the murder, Maria remarries and takes the kids to Ohio, where the adult Papo begins a rampage, eventually killing 18 people and ending up with AIDS on death row. There, he flirts with the solicitous inmate in the next cell (an impressive Warren Levon) and fights ghosts from his past. (Prison guards double as victims, and Jóse hangs around in the background as well.)
Meanwhile, Lulu, a frustrated poet, is trying to adjust to life with her Jewish journalist partner, Ed (Josh Odor), in upscale, white Darien, Connecticut. Unable to commit to marrying Ed until she comes to terms with Papo’s crimes, Lulu wrestles with whether or not to visit her brother in jail before his execution.
Papo’s murders seem less like the organic result of abuse than arbitrary metaphors for class- and race-based resentment, and his victims are little more than crude stereotypes of Pennsyltucky rednecks. Papo’s modus operandi seems to be to needle a cracker into making an ethnic slur, then tear open his face. His ritualistic mutilations illustrate a depthless rage, but Cruz seems to have made him a serial killer for the sheer theatrical shock value of it.
Despite Villa’s incendiary performance, Papo just isn’t inherently fascinating. No matter how much artists try to shoehorn them into symbolic roles, most serial killers appear to be boring people with empty interior lives. They kill because they have a compulsion to kill, and their lack of self-reflection makes them dull.
Cruz fills her dialogue with dark images of blood. Papo draws a crude map of Puerto Rico on his cell wall with it—and of course he has a blood-borne illness—and Lulu imagines their father as a chupacabra, a vampire-like creature often held responsible for livestock deaths in Latino countries. Even Ed gets some blood on his hands as he pursues the mother of an electrocuted boy for a newspaper story. The mother appears a couple times as a choral figure, along with the now-deceased Maria and a generic stand-in for the mothers of Papo’s victims, archetypes of suffering, selfless motherhood.
Though Cruz can be faulted for her didactic attempts to fuse magic realism with gritty, downbeat snapshots of urban and prison life, Anthony Moseley’s actors infuse their performances with anguish. The word grito means “cry” in Spanish, and at some points the show feels like a sustained howl of existential agony. Villa and Delgado deliver intensely alive and mesmerizing portraits, even though information about their characters remains frustratingly thin. Delgado also shows comic chops as she anatomizes the cluelessness of her suburban neighbors, who are apt to stop her in the supermarket and ask if she’s looking for work as a nanny (akin, perhaps, to Senator Sessions wondering aloud why Sotomayor didn’t vote with a fellow Puerto Rican judge in a particular case).
Regina Garcia’s spare multilayered set and Jeremy Getz’s lurid lighting design aid the hallucinatory tone of the play’s asynchronous movements across time from the Colóns’ Bronx apartment to the prison to Lulu and Ed’s home. Still, all this atmosphere doesn’t solve the essential problem. Lulu may come to terms with her troubled brother by play’s end, but Cruz’s grito remains devoid of larger meaning.