The Smell of Popcorn
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 8, 2010
The Smell of Popcorn takes place in the bedroom of a small apartment in a big city, possibly New York. This is where Fabiola lives: she's studying acting and currently appearing in a production of Othello, as Desdemona. She seems glad for the role, but bemoans the inherent weakness of her character. Why, she asks, can't Desdemona be more like Emilia, wise about the ways of men like Othello and willing and able to stand up to them?
The play's beginning moves us quickly from a glimpse of her performance on stage to her night-time, post-show routine: she puts on her nightgown, goes to bed, falls asleep. And then, we discover—as she soon will—that an intruder has entered her apartment (through the bathroom window, we will learn). In her sleep she calls out "Othello!"
But it's not Othello who awaits her in this sometimes realistic, sometimes magic-realistic play, but a different antagonist, a burglar named Georgie. Recently released from prison and alienated by his inability to find work, he's here to steal what he can, even though Fabiola's possessions are meager. He also seems ready to take advantage of the situation by raping Fabiola—he thought the apartment he was breaking into was empty, but finding this lovely young woman here, he is certainly open to new possibilities. Fabiola, summoning Emilia perhaps, conjures different possibilities, however, and The Smell of Popcorn plays out as a series of dialogues between these two characters, discovering things about themselves and each other as they slowly reveal bits of their humanity to one another.
Jose Luis Ramon Escobar's script details both of these individuals with care and dignity, and we come to empathize with both as the play unfolds. Mainly, the play seems to focus on the contradictions of their personalities: she is canny and tough, but also vulnerable and unsure of herself; he is streetwise and cocky, but equally frightened and sensitive. The arc of the play is perhaps improbable—I wondered why Fabiola didn't use any of the chances she has to call for help, for example—but the emotional arc is certainly convincing, and the ending feels true.
The play is at its best showcasing the two young actors who play Fabiola and Georgie. Luciana Faulhaber is lovely and pleasingly spunky; the only places where she seems ill-at-ease are with the Shakespeare excerpts, and it occurs to me that that may be by design. Javier E. Gomez is terrific as Georgie—he conveys all of this troubled young man's insecurities and arrogance, his hopes and his hopelessness. He's a charismatic and likable actor, which helps balance our pre-programmed concern for Fabiola's well-being against him as her adversary.
Jorge Merced's direction is mostly unobtrusive. Design elements—appropriately spare set and evocative lighting by Jason Sturm—work well in the context of the show.