Latino Chicago Theater Company

Migdalia Cruz’s Lucy Loves Me is raucous with characters who are characters, bringing together an oddball threesome from the dark side of New York.

Milton Ayala is a shy stutterer with a penchant for violent fantasies, a lonely Puerto Rican transvestite and devoted fan of Lucille Ball; nightly he bathes in blood from a dead rooster, soliloquizing on how his tub offers him safety and how the blood in the water somehow cleanses him of his sins. Lucy Rodriguez is the 25-year-old, self-effacing pizza deliverer whom Milton meets by a fluke. Though a rape victim, she’s less afraid of life than Milton is; resignedly she says, “I don’t belong to myself–I belong to the world and the world can do anything it wants with me.” Worse, Lucy sees herself as a homely “pizza face” and her function in life as protecting people by bringing them food so they won’t need to endanger themselves by going out. Touched, Milton gives Lucy a love token, a cookie mold he made from the lips of a girlfriend (not too surprisingly, she didn’t cherish the gift). The final entry in this weird and accidental get-together is Lucy’s mother Cookie, a scrappy harridan who clings to the memory of having once been “Miss Manhattan”; nowadays, daubing war paint on her contorted puss, she nightly exhibits herself from her apartment window while waving a small American flag.

Milton is in the habit of making anonymous phone calls, between applications of lipstick, to women named Lucy, and ends up meeting Cookie after he phones to ask her daughter for a very blind date. He doesn’t know that Cookie is the mother of the pizza deliverer he likes, which sets up a hilariously competitive date–on Lucy’s birthday–in which Lucy and Cookie vie for Milton’s elusive attention. They end up trekking to New Jersey to perform in the amateur variety show of the Miss Oyster Festival–Lucy bleating away on a clarinet, her mother telling groaner jokes and wailing her lungs out in a Kate Smith imitation, and Milton softly speaking one of the “Lucy” poems by Wordsworth. When they get home, the mother and daughter explode with old angers: “You’re bad milk–spoiled!” Cookie screams. “Why do you take everything away from me?” demands Lucy. Cookie: “Why do you let me?”

It culminates in a mother-daughter catfight that spills over into Lucy battering Milton; perversely he relishes the attention, curling up in delight. Lucy storms off to carve out a life of her own, Milton goes home to make more phone calls, and Cookie barricades the door with the furniture. Each has reached a separate peace.

“Dysfunctional” is too small a word for Cruz’s daffy menagerie; yet clearly her survivors have lost their marbles for the same reason that Hansel and Gretel scattered bread crumbs in the woods, hoping to find themselves again. They amount to lyrically comic and compassionately shaped eccentrics, like those in Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest, John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck, and Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty (with a big dollop of the Laura-Amanda rivalry in Glass Menagerie).

As Miriam’s Flowers showed last September, the Latino Chicago Theater Company can make us see Cruz’s characters from the inside out, linking the pain to the quirks without condescension or cuteness. Juan A. Ramirez’s staging strikes a tense balance between the script’s freak-show sensationalism and the offbeat poetry of the trio’s desperation. The one flaw of this staging is a plodding pace that prevents the script’s absurdities from reaching the rhythms of farce, especially in the second act.

Laurie Martinez’s simpering Cookie, a vortex of frustrated narcissism, displays the sitcom savvy of the Lucy reruns Milton loves; she also has the blowsy, deadpan sarcasm of TV’s Maude and Roseanne. To her credit, she’s willing to make herself ridiculous to get inside Cookie.

Frankie Davila offers a cleverly understated study in seasoned craziness; you sense that Milton settled into strangeness so long ago that he hardly sees or fears it anymore, yet he’s desperate to find someone to share it with. Davila could open up Milton more, however, if he would stop lapsing into Method mumbling.

Elisa Alvarado suggests Lucy’s awkward insecurity, but overall her approach to the pizza deliverer is too naturalistic–she’s not taking the risks that Davila and Martinez run. Given Cruz’s endearing lines for Lucy, she’ll be liked even if she doesn’t aim to be: Alvarado might just as well play up the cracked pathos.

Setting it all in poignant detail are Michael Ramirez’s apartment sets, the sad props mutely respecting the inhabitants’ hapless extremes. Michelle Banks’s costumes eloquently convey some not-so-hidden fantasies, and the sound effects by Jose Luis Gomez and Ralph Flores suggest the menace of the mean city that surrounds them.