In more than a few places, they’re the greatest film comedies of all time. Forget the critics’ scathing reviews; audiences flocked to see ’em, fueling the franchise’s box office from 1940 all the way to 1962.
The seven-movie Road series would immortalize Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in a surfeit of misadventure in far-flung lands and on the high seas, its wacky plots taking a back seat to sight gags, sketch comedy and business that Bing and Bob would largely ad lib.
Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel Into the Beautiful North has been called a road book, possibly lending it some mileage out of the film characters’ big dreams. Or maybe playwright Karen Zacarias saw value in bringing it to the stage amid its physicality and its political relevance.
In either case, the current live adaptation is a colossal disappointment for San Diego Repertory Theatre and for director Sam Woodhouse. Its road-picture approach to cultural distinctions and the roily border issue is 100 percent off the mark and vaguely out of line, especially amid our proximity to Mexico; its aspiration to lighter comedy features stereotypes that ingratiate and underplay the preposterous.
Never mind that the production values are spotty and that the performances underwhelm — just as theater is a public act, this show is an insurrection, whose politics have absolutely no place in the national debate.
Even Nayeli’s father has departed Tres Camarones, a dusky village in the duskier Sinaloa that has lately seen an exodus of men looking for a better life in the United States. All it takes is one sit-through of The Magnificent Seven to propel her northward in search of her own band of saviors, who will ideally reclaim the town from the dirty drug traficantes, the surly border agents and the general mess it’s in as a sullen Mexico looks on.
Nayeli, her breathless gay crony Tacho and her feckless emo Vampi will cross the border illegally and storm the bastion that is Kankakee, Ill., but not before the odyssey takes pivots both good and bad for one and all.
Nationhood and self-discovery rule the day. Curtain.
The cavalier story makes the nationals look like a bunch of blubbering idiots…
Yes, the smaller roles largely don’t justify themselves. Yes, the story takes several roads and develops very few. Yes, it all could have been done in one act. Yes, Jennifer Paredes has a very nice grasp of the moment as Vampi (née Veronica), and yes, the good tech crew knows caricature from the concrete.
And yes, the show looks and feels like a Travel Channel send-up, with its contrived characters and its touseled dialogue. Remember the running “patty-cake” gag from the Road series? Save the mechanics, it’s enacted here over and over again, with the Sinaloans looking lost in the fog, bereft of the national purpose that drives them to risk illegal immigration.
Nayeli’s search for a boyfriend? Lamour was built for the role.
Mexican sovereignty and pride? The cavalier story makes the nationals look like a bunch of blubbering idiots, lurching their way through a sea of imponderables as their raison d’etre almost surgically disappears.
I don’t know Woodhouse well — I’ve interviewed him only once, and that was on the phone 103 years ago — but my sense is that he’s a good and honorable man. He’s ending his 41st Rep season amid a daily diet of crushingly hard work as the company’s artistic director and co-founder. His spit-shined venue has certainly staged as many successes as disappointments in the last 12 seasons, and it’s responsible for last fall’s Disgraced, one of the greatest works it has been my privilege to witness, let alone review.
And in his defense, this piece is what’s known as a rolling premiere, in which a playwright develops and unveils a new script with creatives in at least three communities (as such, the selection might have even been out of his control).
But there’s theater and then there are theatrics. There’s character and then there are characteristics. And there’s an administration out there that aspires to paint nationality precisely as this show paints Mexico and Mexicans. It’s 45 against the world, and as long as that attitude prevails, you can’t stoke the flames.
Neither can you mount this play.
And most certainly not now.
This review is based on the performance of April 7. Into the Beautiful North runs through April 23 at The Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $20-$65. 619-544-1000, sdrep.org.