Review: Three Twentysomethings in Madrid Contemplate Their Lives in Toros

Second Stage presents the world premiere of Danny Tejera’s new play, which features a human being playing a dog.

Juan Castano, Frank Wood, and Abubakr Ali star in Danny Tejera’s Toros, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, for Second Stage at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Whatever you end up thinking about Toros as a whole, there’s one element you surely won’t forget. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s Second Stage-produced production of Danny Tejera’s new play boasts the spectacle of veteran stage actor Frank Wood playing … a dog. Not an anthropomorphized version of a dog: an actual dog that barks and whines. It’s an amusing conceit, but it’s a measure of how wispy the rest of the play is that Wood’s unusual turn ends up being the most memorable aspect of the production.

Broadly speaking, Toros is a portrait of twentysomething characters who are unsure of themselves and the direction of their lives. Toro (Abubakr Ali), whose real name is Alex, has just returned to Madrid, where the play is set, after a stint in New York City that climaxed in a suicide attempt. While he tries to put his life back together, he holds down a real-estate job that Carl (also played by Wood), who is the father of his friend Juan (Juan Castano), got for him.

By contrast, Juan, who also works at his dad’s real-estate company, does have a goal in mind: He wants to become a DJ. That’s why he has transformed part of his parents’ garage — in which the entire play is set over a few weeks — into a studio in which he can practice spinning his beats. A mutual friend of theirs, Andrea (played by the one-letter-monikered b), offers not only the potential for romantic complications between the two men, but also a counterpoint to the anomie that engulfs them both in their own ways. And then, of course, there’s Tica, the sickly aforementioned dog.

0329r Juan Castano in TOROS. Photo by Joan Marcus 2023
Juan Castano plays Juan in Danny Tejera’s Toros, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, for Second Stage at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

The play’s title offers some clues as to what interests Tejera here. “Toro” is Spanish for “bull,” and Toro explains to Andrea that the nickname was born out of a soccer coach’s mishearing of his actual last name, “Totah,” which derives from the Arabic word for “mulberry.” The disparity between the vaguely feminine connotations of his last name and the machismo suggested by his nickname is hardly incidental. Tejera is, among other things, concerned with degrees of masculinity, with Toro shyer and more deferential compared to the rougher and gruffer Juan. Nor is it incidental that Tejera has named his play after the plural form of “toro.” Over the course of the play, Toro and Juan experience a personality switch of sorts, with the former gaining something of a spine while the latter finds his manly armor breaking down bit by bit.

The subtlety with which Tejera gets at these themes is noteworthy. Toros proceeds as a series of scenes in which the playwright invites us to observe these characters as they slowly reveal themselves. Right off the bat, we can’t help but note just how Juan seems more obsessed with practicing his DJing than in attending to his ostensible friend while they’re hanging out — an early, glaring red flag for ensuing tensions. The downside of Tejera’s emphasis on naturalism is that neither the characters nor the themes they’re meant to exemplify accumulate the kind of weight and depth that might have made the play imprint itself more strongly in the memory.

Still, Toros does at least intrigue in the moment, thanks in large part to the engaging central trio of performers. Ali skillfully evokes a sense of melancholy underlying Toro’s youthful visage and eager-to-please demeanor. Opposite him, Castano brings a raucous frat-boy energy to Juan that eventually crumbles to reveal the lost boy underneath. As Andrea, b brings both warmth and resolve as the fulcrum between both men. As for Wood, he’s nothing if not game as the dog and offers his usual solidity as Juan’s father.

0165r b in TOROS. Photo by Joan Marcus 2023.
b plays Andrea in Danny Tejera’s Toros, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, for Second Stage at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Upchurch honors Tejera’s general commitment to naturalism in her production. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design for the garage feels convincingly lived-in with all its onstage clutter. Costume designer Enver Chakartash has clothed the performers in attire that emphasizes their ages and shifting personalities. Darron L West’s sound design is appropriately boomy when Juan blasts his beats, while lighting designer Barbara Samuels’s evocation of night during moments in which the garage lights are turned off casts a sensual glow.

One oddity in this naturalistic context is Upchurch’s decision to have a bunch of furniture and other bric-a-brac stand in the Audi that is covered up by tarp through most of the play. But then, having a human being play a dog doesn’t really fit in either; nor does one sex scene that is depicted in an abstract, dance-like manner. If Tejera had doubled down on such surrealistic swings, maybe Toros would have added up to something more than just another tale of aimless millennials trying to figure themselves out.

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Closed: August 13, 2023