Rivera's new play, Sonnets for an Old Century, evinces much of the Puerto Rican native's lyrical power, and a good bit of his preciousness. But the production itself, while billed as a workshop, is so well acted -- it's a large cast, powerfully directed by Emory Van Cleve -- that we are captivated. Only at times does the staging sag with the sentimentality that stems from Rivera's tendency to abuse his prosodic gift.
This co-production of The Barrow Group and Bad Dog Productions presents 17 people in an afterlife waiting room of sorts, a purgatory where they're told by their guide (Rozie Bacchi) that they will soon be granted the "last and only time you have to give your side of the story -- as far as I know." The set, by Narelle Sissions, artfully traps the speakers behind a single rope barrier with chairs for each of them. They are surrounded by iconic paintings of blue skies and white clouds hanging isolated in space, just out of their reach.
Overtly updating Spoon River Anthology, Rivera has characters of various ages and backgrounds deliver, one by one, monologues about their lives while the other characters listen and react along with the audience. With 16 people onstage functioning as spectators, the actual audience members may, at times, feel demoted to second-string. Nonetheless, the power of a few of the performances, including Martin Van Treuren as a physicist seeking deep meaning in cosmology, justifies our attention.
Other standouts are Hope Singsen as a Los Angeles woman who finds beauty in a smog-laden sunset and Michael Cruz Sullivan as a married man whose life is described in terms of lovemaking. Myles O'Connor owns the stage during his bit as a blue-collar man whose discomfort with his sins is almost as strong as his indignance at being judged. Monique Curnen does nice work as a woman with a disturbing, hallucinatory vision, but our interest in her ends when Rivera leaves her at an impasse; additionally, the fact that the script has Curnen announce her character's mixed-race origins is awkward to the point of distraction.
For an artist like Rivera, whose gift is so abundant, the ability to create poetic phrases can actually reduce the individuality of the characters' voices. This sometimes happens here. One of our best balancers of the ridiculous and the tragic, Rivera is at his best when his characters alternate nimbly between speaking in the playwright's ecstatic style and in their own particular ways. Because we are so grateful for gorgeous lines like "the red bursting sun dropping golden coins in the ocean," we are all the more resentful of Rivera's inclusion of bland strokes like "she told me stories of loss and sadness," which take us into romance novel territory.
Still, the performances and direction are powerful and well aided by Scott Bolman's effective lighting. A simple adjustment to address the play's problematic pacing might include re-examining the order of the monologues. But this is a quibble regarding a show that left several audience members visibly moved. We ask more of our established artists than we do of others, and rightly so. José Rivera, a recipient of many theater awards who also writes for television and movies, should be commended for remaining faithful to the art of the stage.