Zoot Suit

Goodman Theatre

By Adam Langer

In their twilights, institutions have a way of evoking memories of better times while not completely living up to them. My parents assure me that on the final day of operation at Don Roth’s Blackhawk restaurant on Wabash the spinning salad bowl was good but not quite the best it had ever been. The Blackhawks didn’t take home the cup the year the Chicago Stadium was leveled. The White Sox came close in their final season at the old Comiskey Park but wound up also-rans, their departure from the doomed south-side baseball palace underscored by John Cougar Mellencamp’s morbid chorus in “When the Walls Come Tumbling Down” over the PA system.

Too bad the Goodman couldn’t have closed out its long stay at the Art Institute–it’s moving to the Loop next fall–with its recent production of Jitney or A Moon for the Misbegotten. Its well-executed revival of Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit is exuberant but surprisingly flat emotionally. Yet the show marks several milestones for the theater. Not only is it the first production by a Chicano playwright ever to grace the Goodman’s main stage, it’s also the Chicago premiere of a much acclaimed work: Valdez, who founded El Teatro Campesino, is arguably the best-known Latino playwright of our time. The 1978 play opened in Los Angeles and went on to Broadway, then was adapted for the 1981 Golden Globe-nominated film of the same name, directed by Valdez and featuring Edward James Olmos. (Six years later, Valdez directed the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba.)

Zoot Suit is set in Los Angeles during World War II, a time of xenophobia and ethnic unrest. It’s based on the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which 22 Latinos–members of the Thirty-Eighth Street Gang–were charged with the murder of a teenager in a rival gang during a fight. Twelve of the accused, including their leader, were sent to San Quentin, largely as a result of circumstantial evidence. After a lengthy appeal by progressive lawyers and journalists, their guilty verdicts were overturned.

Though trial transcripts and painstaking historical research provide the basis for a good deal of Valdez’s material, this is a fictionalized account, and the playwright employs a variety of theatrical styles–Brechtian epic theater, courtroom drama, and the good old-fashioned American musical–to broadly depict the Chicano experience in America. As one of Valdez’s characters self-consciously points out, the play is “a construct of fact and fantasy.” Valdez tells the story of Henry Reyna and his comrades, who are assisted in their struggle against a rigged system by do-gooder attorney George Shearer and Jewish activist-journalist Alice Bloomfield, who falls for Henry while he’s in prison.

These events are commented upon by El Pachuco, a sly, ultracool zoot-suiter who serves as both Henry’s alter ego and the play’s conscience. As portrayed by Marco Rodriguez (who appeared in the original production of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum in LA more than 20 years ago), El Pachuco glides across the stage, hands in pockets, body slightly stooped like a reefer-buzzed Groucho Marx playing Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, his hat bedecked with a red feather, his black suit adorned with red glitter. Speaking with cynical wisdom, he watches the courtroom proceedings and leads his three backup singers–the Pachucas–in rousing, occasionally satirical songs. (The music is by influential Latino composer Lalo Guerrero and Valdez’s brother Daniel, who played Henry in the original production and serves as musical director for the Goodman staging.)

During the show’s many song-and-dance numbers director Henry Godinez does manage to achieve a triumphant, celebratory tone appropriate to the Goodman’s final show in this space. The production values are top-notch. Christopher Acero’s both understated and flamboyant set design makes clever use of a newspaper motif–stacks of newspapers serve as chairs, and graying newspaper forms a prison wall. The play’s opening image is its most stunning: El Pachuco enters by slicing through a newspaper wall with a knife. Many of the performances Godinez coaxes from his 28-member cast are excellent; Andrew Navarro as Reyna and Kevin Gudahl as the lawyer Shearer offer particularly fine work.

Where this production falters is in its human elements, which often seem secondary to the spectacle. Though Henry Reyna’s case is fraught with pathos and injustice, one feels surprisingly detached from it, and Reyna’s imprisonment and later release are strangely unaffecting. This is due in part to the broad way in which Valdez has painted the scene, but it’s also the result of presenting many of the characters as 1940s movie types rather than carefully thought-out individuals. Cops, newspaper writers, and other familiar figures have a rote, shorthand quality.

The scenes between Reyna and journalist Bloomfield (played by the versatile Amy Landecker) seem stiff and implausible. And far too much of the second act–even the moment when Reyna is reunited with his family–seems anticlimactic, perhaps because most of the showstopping musical numbers have already occurred. Unfortunately Zoot Suit is a mere coda to the Goodman’s final season at its longtime home–its peak came with Gabriel Byrne’s final exit in A Moon for the Misbegotten.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.