Review: An Opposites-Attract Romance to a Bachata Beat in Bees & Honey

Guadalís Del Carmen’s heartwarming new play makes its world premiere at MCC Theater.

Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco in MCC Theater’s production of Bees & Honey, directed by Melissa Crespo
(© Julieta Cervantes)

According to MCC Theater’s website for its world-premiere production of Bees & Honey,  Guadalís Del Carmen’s play is inspired by the Juan Luis Guerra song “Como Abeja al Panal,” which roughly translates to “like a bee to the honeycomb” in English. Neither “bees” nor “honey” is uttered in the play, but the genre of Guerra’s tune, bachata, is invoked in its memory-like opening scene. Originating among the poor and working class in the Dominican Republic the 1950s, bachata was sneered at by the upper classes for a couple decades before it rose in popularity in the ’70s and reached an international audience with the release of Guerra’s 1990 album Bachata Rosa, from which “Como Abeja al Panal” derives. It’s the social divide that marked the early decades of bachata’s reception that appears to have inspired Del Carmen the most in this ambitious, thoughtful, and affecting two-hander, presented in collaboration with the Sol Project.

On paper, there doesn’t appear to be much to connect Johaira (Maribel Martinez) and Manuel (Xavier Pacheco): the former is a lawyer, the latter an auto mechanic. Sparks fly between them when they first meet at a club in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, kicking off the tempestuous year in their relationship that the play chronicles. It’s a year marked by the potential for personal and professional growth for both — with Johaira taking on a high-profile sexual assault case and Manuel scoring a loan to help expand his business across NYC — as well as obstacles that threaten their forward progress, like Johaira’s unexpected pregnancy and Manuel’s devotion to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother.

The social gap between the two, however, quietly reverberates throughout the play. One can see an early red flag when Manuel initially dismisses bell hooks’s The Will to Change, which he reads upon Johaira’s urging and dismisses as “boring” before he agrees to give it another shot. For those who believe that attempts to change a man are bound to threaten a relationship, Bees & Honey offers a poignant demonstration of that bitter truth.

Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco in Bees & Honey
(© Julieta Cervantes)

But Del Carmen is less interested in setting up easy binaries than in dramatizing all-too-human complexities. Manuel is driven by a genuine desire to please and learn from Johaira, even if his culturally ingrained macho tendencies sometimes get in the way. As for Johaira, even when she gives firm voice to her feminist leanings, Del Carmen avoids turning the character into a mere self-righteous mouthpiece by making us acutely aware of her relative privilege, as encapsulated in one scene in which she expresses immediate enthusiasm for a $4,000 crib even as Manuel balks at the high price tag. Though they find a reasonable compromise, the cultural fault line exposed bodes ill for their relationship’s future.

What’s most impressive about Bees & Honey is the way Del Carmen is able to develop both characters and evoke hot-button topical issues without lapsing into heavy-handedness. Johaira and Manuel always manage to come off as genuine human beings who are trying, however clumsily, to navigate the shifting social landscape around them and the emotional complications within. Martinez and Pacheco certainly make it easy to root for this couple: Martinez passionate and outspoken yet grounded in warmth for her partner, Pacheco persuasive in conveying masculine energy augmented by open-hearted sincerity.

Director Melissa Crespo has surrounded her two lead performers with a very fine production. Shoko Kambara’s set design, with original artwork on the sides by Daniel Peguero, pops with homey, pastel-like colors. Reza Behjat lights the set with a palette of vivid hues, occasionally plunging the set into dark shadows during the heaviest moments. Also adding to the emotional impact is Germán Martínez’s evocative sound design and Dilson’s original music, which provides a wealth of colorations during scene transitions (the way he works in familiar noises from the NYC subways into one particular cue is especially delightful). All the technical elements enhance the love story at the heart of Bees & Honey: a genuinely touching one about two essentially kind-hearted people who are trying to do right by each other and themselves.

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Bees & Honey

Closed: June 11, 2023