Teddy Canez and Audrey Esparza in Post No Bills
(© Sandra Coudert)
Teddy Canez and Audrey Esparza in Post No Bills
(© Sandra Coudert)
Parts of Mando Alvarado's Post No Bills, playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, bring to mind the verbal and emotional astringency found in David Mamet plays. There are also moments when the play brings to mind lighter fare, like made-for-television movies about romance that springs from two characters meeting "cute." Much like the quartet of lost souls in the play, these archetypes awkwardly collide in Alvarado's play, and although the combination isn't always completely successful, the piece consistently engages.

Bills centers on Esteban (Teddy Cañez), a once locally famous Tex-Mex singer, who now performs in an almost-forgotten subway corridor underneath Port Authority. Nearby the elderly and blind Sal (suffused with dignity, gentility and power by John-Martin Green) attempts to earn a few bucks by allowing people to vent their anger at him. Despite some pretty intense personality differences -- Sal is as kind and sentimental as Steve is aggressive and emotionally distant -- the two men have bonded to the point that Sal has taken on an almost big brother attitude toward Steve.

Sal encourages Esteban to reach out to a young woman who has begun hanging out in the tunnel. Reluctantly, Steve takes Sal's advice. Almost immediately, Reyna (Audrey Esparza), a 17-year-old who's traveled to the city from Laredo, is part of Steve's act and crashing at his tiny and cluttered Brooklyn apartment. (The scenic designer Raul Abrego brings both the tunnel and Esteban's home to life with terrific detail.) A sort of love develops between the two, but it's more a confused father-daughter type than romantic. Ultimately, though, Reyna's ambition, Esteban's hard jadedness and the arrival of another musician, Eddie (the winning, and yet somehow subtly smarmy, Wade Allain-Marcus), combine to drive the characters apart.

The story's familiar, but just when it seems as though the piece might be settling into a conventional plot line or succumbing to sentimentality, Alvarado manages to throw in a welcome twist. Sometimes it's a song (the original tunes are from Sandra Rubio) that both fits the action and comments on it. At other moments, it's a bit of surprising lyricism, which offsets the characters' frequent bursts of Mamet-like invective, or a character behaving in an unexpected, yet psychologically believable, way.

Director Michael Ray Escamilla tackles the material with aplomb, and adds layers to it. For instance, two additional "street musicians" -- Rubio and Andrew Wetzel -- sit in front of the stage, playing along with the actors as they sing or sometimes, simply performing a bit of underscoring. Their work adds depth to the piece, as does a nuanced soundscape from designer Eric Shim and some truly realistic subway platform lighting from designer Joel Moritz.

Ultimately, though, it's the riveting performances from Cañez and Esparza that make Bills so compelling. Together they conspire to ensure that Esteban and Reyna's relationship inspires theatergoers to think "eww" while watching the characters' friendship deepen. Singly, they attack their roles with potent fierceness, tossing out verbal assaults at one another with almost frightening passion. There are moments when even their work cannot completely overcome some of Alvarado's more trenchant writing, but most theatergoers will likely leave Post No Bills invigorated.