Love puzzles, and messes up, the dozen characters in Tell Hector I Miss Him, a play wonderfully acted by a cast that includes veterans of Orange is the New Black. If the play itself sometimes puzzles, and shocks, it also marks a remarkable playwriting debut by 28-year-old Paola Lazaro.
Lazaro’s work is reminiscent of that by Stephen Adly Guirgis and August Wilson in its ability to turn street language into stage poetry, and to shine a warm center spotlight on people who are usually pushed to the edge.
All the characters in Tell Hector reside in La Perla, a poor neighborhood (never explicitly named in the play) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico that anthropologist Oscar Lewis used for La Vida, his famous study 50 years ago of impoverished slum-dwellers, and that is reportedly still so notorious that most San Juan city maps exclude the streets of La Perla, so that tourists will not wander into the area, beset with drugs and crime.
In the very first scene of the play, we see the stone wall of the old fort that lines the neighborhood, empty except for the noise of an (unseen) couple off somewhere having sex.
“F.. me like I’m a trash bag. Like I don’t mean nothing to you, like you don’t like me,” says the woman we eventually learn is Samira (Selenis Leyva, who portrays the cook Gloria Mendoza in the Netflix prison series Orange is the New Black.)
“But you do mean something to me and I do like you,” says Jeison (Victor Almanzar.)
“But I don’t want you to like me….” Samira replies.
From the very first lines, the playwright establishes a tone that threads throughout the piece — in-your-face, unexpected, and amusing.
Samira, it turns out, is having an adulterous affair with Jeison. She is married to Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernandez), the proprietor of the local grocery store, where much of the action takes place (although the set of old stone walls designed by Clint Ramos never changes.) Jeison is a drug dealer. He takes care, more or less, of his brother Palito (Sean Carvajal) who would be otherwise beaten up mercilessly, since most people think he’s retarded. “I ain’t retarded! I was born with fetal alcohol syndrome,” Palito exclaims. (He exclaims everything loudly, and repeatedly.)
One by one we meet the rest of the characters, most of whom behave oddly.Tono (Alexander Flores) arrives at the grocery store with a mission from his mother; to have Mostro punish him by having him clean the toilets, because he was suspended for having sexually harassed his teacher; he hid under her desk until after school in order to touch her. The young woman everyone calls La Gata (Talene Monahan) does not speak except to meow like a cat. Palito is in love with Tati (Analisa Velez.) Isis, a 16-year-old Catholic schoolgirl (Yadira Guevara-Prip) is in love with Malena (Dascha Polanco, who plays Dayanara Diaz in Orange is the New Black.) None of this love is reciprocated. The street magician El Mago (Luis Vega) takes care of Hugo (Flaco Navaja) who is mourning his eviction by his girlfriend.
There is some overlap between these characters and their stories, but they are tied together not so much by a plot but by their common themes.
This may not sit well with many theatergoers, used to a more focused and orderly drama. But I found that I better understood and appreciated most of these characters’ eerie behavior by the end of Tell Hector (Only the subplot between El Mago and Hugo eluded me, my assumption of homoerotic attraction remaining undeveloped.) The strangeness of these scenes made them memorable, and Lazaro’s ear delightful.
ISIS: You are magic. Asi?, that’s it, magic. Your effect.
MALENA: Nah, nah.
ISIS: You are. And I’m not trying to like hit on you or anything. But you are. And actually I am. I am hitting on you. You have my heart. Asi?, that’s it. And I know that you don’t like women, but you have my heart. And I’m okay with that. Keep it. It’s fine. It’s better off with you anyway.
Tell Hector I Miss Him is on stage at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street, between 7th and 8th Aves, New York, New York, 10011) through February 19, 2017.
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