just don't touch me, amigo
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 19, 2009
If just don't touch me, amigo, Fernando Gambaroni's new solo show about a South American immigrant relocating to New York, were simply content to retread shopworn fish-out-of-water cliches it would still be a good show. Gambaroni is a talented enough actor and writer to make such familiar territory worth revisiting. What elevates his play to the level of excellence is his sharp insight about racism, assimilation, and New York's unique brand of compartmentalized malaise. Social commentary doesn't often come with this much subtle comic flair or ferocious vitality.
Buenos Aires-born Pedro arrives in The Big Apple seeking fame and fortune, but unprepared for all that the city throws at him: skittish coffeehouse encounters, self-involved bottoms, contentious job interviews, and the hot, loud, smelly MTA, to name a few things. As he adjusts to his new surroundings, Pedro develops a clearer (and more somber) view of life in Gotham.
Chief among these is his discovery that "People here have stopped looking for friends." His new-arrival enthusiasm is interpreted as neediness by Catherine, a secretary who shares a table with him at Starbucks: when Pedro asks for her phone number, she tells him she already has too many friends. Similarly, Pedro only gets as far as a first date with David, himself a transplant from West Virginia, but still calls him for six months afterwards trying to arrange a second one. When it becomes clear that Pedro hasn't gotten the hint, David considers filing a restraining order.
Then, there is Pedro's realization that "Spanish is not relevant in America...it is the language of segregation." When he refuses to disclose his ethnicity at a job interview, the recruiter pushes hard to find out why. It turns out that Pedro wants only to be judged fairly by his qualifications, not ghettoized by his race. What follows is a heated argument fueled by the not-so-hidden biases Hispanic cultures have towards one another (the recruiter turns out to be Puerto Rican), the difference between one's origins and one's identity, and what Pedro perceives as Latin America's inferiority complex towards North America.
This is deep, weighty stuff. But Gambaroni isn't one to overtly hammer his message home. Instead of standing on a soapbox, he reveals the play's themes subtly through action and character. This is, after all, a comedy, and there's nothing funnier than seeing something familiar through the eyes of someone who's not familiar with it. Gambaroni successfully works that angle, as both writer and performer, and makes New York (and, in a larger sense, the idea of America as the Land of Opportunity) look a little sillier and more short-sighted than it has before.
Jose Zayas's smart direction emphasizes the play's humor and humanity, as does Gambaroni's wonderful performance. His work here marks Pedro's charming naivete and candor as a descendant of Andy Kaufman's brilliant turn as Latka Gravas on the 1970s television series Taxi. Like Latka, Pedro has an uncannily hilarious ability to say or do what others might perceive as the wrong thing. "I don't know how to be nice in English yet," he apologizes to Catherine early on. But, in the very next scene, he knowingly conveys the rules of American life to a friend back home: "As long as your accent is thick enough, you can say whatever you want." just don't touch me, amigo is full of such wry wisdom, knowing that potent social commentary is sometimes best delivered with a smile and a laugh.