THE BLOG
02/09/2017 10:04 pm ET

First Nighter: Tanya Saracho's "Fade," Geoff Sobelle's "The Object Lesson," Robert Holman's "Jonah and Otto"

Two Mexicans walk into a Hollywood movie studio office. No, this isn't the beginning of a hot new joke, even though there's an early Donald J. Trump laugh line. It's the start of Tanya Saracho's Fade, at the Cherry Lane, that, for one thing, takes up within-nationality biases

Lucia (Annie Dow), who's written one novel and is blocked on a second, has accepted a writing-team job on a television series. She's moved into her second-tier but still comfortable office where Abel (Eddie Martinez), pronounced Ah-bell, is the handy cleaning man. (Mariana Sanchez is the set designer.)

Just about right off the bat, Lucia assumes--correctly--that Eddie is Mexican and, because she is, too, begins addressing him in Spanish. Although he speaks English, he doesn't respond at first. Shortly, however, he points out to her--in English--that her assumption exposes a class distinction she's made about who would be likely to learn a second language and who wouldn't.

So their earlier exchanges revolve around Abel wising Lucia up to herself as she grouses about the barely disguised biased treatment she's receiving from her states-born male writing colleagues.

In time, Lucia eases up and, as Abel visits her space to empty her wastebasket and show how to open her window, the two become friendlier and even bond with each other against the writing-team's unconscious racist remarks. They're in accord to the extent that Eddie not only opens up to Lucia about his troubles at home but also begins discussing her writing assignments.

It's here where Saracho's play--so smart about prejudice often seemingly rampant--goes somewhat off the tracks. Lucia gets Abel relaxed enough to confide something drastic about himself and family. Doing that, Saracho arms the audience with a hearty nudge as to where she's going with her script and makes a playwright's major mistake.

She lets the audience get ahead of her. The problem becomes that rather than having patrons follow the Lucia-Abel development, they're drumming their fingers in regard to how long it's going to take for the inevitable to take place.

Though that goes some way to vitiate Fade, it doesn't undermine the play completely. Her observations about the complexities of intolerance are astute. The Lucia-Abel relationship and how it grows is amusing as well as enlightening to observe.

The playwright is valuably abetted by director Jerry Ruiz, who began his work in an earlier Denver Center Theatre Company production. Dow's never-ending jitters are great fun to watch. Worth watching closely is Martinez's display of sly understanding. He also exhibits a confident workingman's stride, which he probably honed in Denver.
******************
At the New York Theatre Workshop they're happy to reconfigure the commodious space for whatever is lodging there temporarily. With The Object Lesson, they've gone whole hog.

When patrons enter past an opaque plastic curtain they've already passed a wall of stacked boxes. Once in, they're encouraged to wander through the hundreds(?) of additional boxes. Some are stacked. Some are not, but are open and contain what look like society's detritus. Some are designated as seats. (Steven Dufala is credited with the scenic installation design.)

After the crowd has spent time milling about and then sitting, a willowy fellow named Geoff Sobelle (not that he gives a character's name) starts talking, initially discussing objects he picks out near the chair he's occupied for a few minutes. He rambles on for a while and then makes a call (or was he called?; I don't remember) and begins talking to himself--to his just recorded opening ramble.

Sobelle, ostensibly known for award-winning installations, continues spinning sentences that are notable for adding up to nothing much. In response, the audience occasionally laughs. Otherwise, the attendees are polite throughout.

For a bit of relief from the attenuated tedium, Sobelle, climbs on a table and, with the ice skates he's wearing, does a dance in which he cuts up lettuce, carrots and a red pepper, thereby producing a salad for a woman, who's said she's Kyoko. The sequence is mildly amusing and constitutes the 90-minute diversion's high point.

(David Parker/The Bang Group is credited with the choreography. David Neumann is credited as director, although the extent of his contributions is elusive.)

For the final 10 or 15 minutes of a piece originally commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, Sobelle stands at one end of the room pulling seemingly endless objects from a medium-sized box. Eventually, he runs out of junk, making his perhaps major point that in time civilization comes down to nothing.

Early on, Sobelle dubs the undertaking a "bulls**t enterprise." Let's give him that final word on one of the most impoverished theater pieces by which this reviewer has ever been assaulted.
******************
In Robert Holman's Jonah and Otto, twentysomething-thirtysomething Jonah (Rupert Simonian) and sixty-ish Otto (Sean Gormley) don't meet cute on this side of a crumbling stone wall that could, despite the absence of gravestones, be a cemetery. (Ann Beyersdorfer is responsible for the haunted-looking set.)

They encounter when Jonah slinks through a wooden door pushing a laden cart. He arrives to menace Otto, who's been rubbing against the wall, ostensibly to extract the heat soaked up during the day.

Otto calls Jonah a hoodlum. Jonah claims he isn't. Throughout the ensuing conversation, which stretches into a series of conversations, Jonah and Otto alternately rag each other or declare their concern for one another. Slowly, it becomes obvious that, despite their differently troubled lives, they're forging a friendship. One of the reasons is the sleeping infant daughter whom Jonah takes care of in his cart.

Trying to make precise sense of what's transpiring moment to moment may not be worth a ticket buyer's time. The script doesn't bear the weight of too much analysis--certainly not the sequence in which while Otto is apparently sleeping, Jonah strips him of his outer clothes. This piece may be a small lapse in playwright Holman's career.

Little known stateside, if known at all, he does include among his works an exquisite one-act produced in 1986 about the also all but unknown writer Denton Welch. It's called Being Friends, and also there's A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, co-authored with David Eldridge and Simon Stephens. Would that those two plays would be presented here.

The pressing reason to see Jonah and Otto is to watch what Simonian and Gormley do with their meaty roles, as directed by Geraldine Hughes. Swizzlestick-thin Otto switches with speed from scared clergyman (at least a clergyman is what Otto claims to be) to overbearing aggressor. Chunky Simonian--who gets to throw a terrifyingly convincing epileptic fit--slowly instills irresistible humanity into the openly emotional Jonah.

Although Holman's play adds up to less than the sum of its parts, the acting amounts to a good deal more.

CONVERSATIONS