Tell Hector I Miss Him
Paola Lázaro pens a salsa of love and regret in Old San Juan.
Singer Hector Lavoe was an indispensable figure in the development of salsa music. His tragic AIDS-related death in 1993 left a gaping void in the Puerto Rican music scene, one that has never completely been filled. Paola Lázaro captures that sense of loss and longing in Tell Hector I Miss Him at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2. Despite the title, this world premiere is not actually about Lavoe, but the denizens of San Juan who would be intimately familiar with his music. With a beautifully lyrical but unwieldy style, Lázaro explores an entire community: its inhabitants, their desires, and their fears. It's like Our Town with salsa and cocaine.
The community in question seems to be modeled after La Perla, a neighborhood of Old San Juan walled off from the tourists and infamous for drug crime. Brothers Jeison (Victor Almanzar) and Palito (Sean Carvajal) sell pills and powder openly in the street, like carnies hawking cotton candy. Tati (Analisa Velez) dates the somewhat slow Palito, but only for his access to drugs and cash. Hugo (Flaco Navaja) goes on a weeklong coke bender, watched over by the charismatic street magician El Mago (Luis Vega). Samira (Selenis Leyva) is tired of her lackluster marriage to Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernández), so she has an affair. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Isis (Yadira Guevara-Prip) discovers love for the first time in the form of the sexy and aloof Malena (Dascha Polanco). Toño dreads a life caring for his Mami (Lisa Ramirez), who drinks rum like a pirate. No one understands the strange American girl, La Gata (Talene Monahon), who only speaks in meows. Together, they form a vibrant, dangerous, and ever-shifting society.
The massive scope of Tell Hector I Miss Him is admirably ambitious, especially considering that this is the 28-year-old Lázaro's first professionally produced work. She impressively captures the essence of her subjects through raw and honest dialogue. Unfortunately, she opens so many doors in the first act that it proves difficult to close them all in a satisfying way in the second. The fact that we come back from the intermission and face three overly long scenes focusing on only one plotline doesn't help. Rather, it makes the rest of Act 2 feel like a mad dash to the finish line, leaving some of the less hearty storylines in the dust.
Whatever Lázaro lacks in editing and finesse, she more than makes up for by crafting believably round and dynamic characters. These are meaty roles for great actors to sink their teeth into and this incredible cast does just that.
Vega's aggressive street performance betrays real hunger, not just for food but human interaction. Leyva exhibits the constrained breath of a woman drowning in the tedium of her life, but determined to swim to shore. Carvajal gives a sympathetic performance as Palito, a minnow in this human shark tank. As Malena, Polanco is indeed the sexiest character onstage: Her cool and inscrutable gaze makes her instantly alluring. All of these characters know what they want (or think they do) and go after it with full force.
David Mendizábal directs a production bursting at the seams with unrequited desire. While the second act heaves under the weight of superfluous dialogue, the first act is a model of efficiency: The sizable exposition unfolds in Shakespearean fashion, with actors entering to play their short scenes and promptly exiting to make way for the next.
To provide for these rapid transitions, set designer Clint Ramos has created an open playing space that simultaneously exudes the atmosphere of Old San Juan: The faintest hint of old graffiti tags decorate the ancient fortifications surrounding the stage. Weeds grow through cracks in the mortar, reclaiming land once colonized by the Spanish crown. Dede M. Ayite authentically costumes the cast in a manner that accounts for generational and class differences: Poor boy Toño wears jean shorts and oversize bargain bin T-shirts. Sexy drug dealer Jeison dons a name-brand polo shirt over a tight black undershirt. Mostro wears loose slacks and a shirt that appears to have faded in the sun over the course of several decades: Without words, it lets us know just how little things have changed since the day he wed Samira.
For a community with so much outward passion, the characters of Tell Hector I Miss Him leave us with an overwhelming feeling of cold, bitter loneliness. The luckiest ones end up in relationships that could be deemed "good enough for now." Some end up with no one at all. It's not the uplifting message we get from Love, Actually (a film that similarly employed interweaving plots to tell a story of ubiquitous love), but it is a sophisticated, brutally honest take from a promising young playwright.