Acts of Mercy
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 11, 2006
I did not particularly enjoy the 135 minutes I spent with Michael John Garces’s Acts of Mercy: passion play, but it was not a wasted evening at the (Rattlestick Playwrights) Theatre, to be sure.
I was struck immediately by the glowing cross of purple-neon lights that illuminated the black stage from above, suggesting a mournful and somewhat destitute (economically? morally?) feeling to the proceedings. The lights dimmed and rose again on an old man clearly on his deathbed singing a half-remembered song in a weakly delirious state, as a young woman with black hair covering her face gently cleansed his feet and legs. I was riveted. The lights dimmed again and rose on two young men hovering over the old man who seemed to be sleeping. Then they started arguing with machine-gun rapidity: a style of interaction that did not cease until the actors took their bows more than two hours later.
The premise is rather simple and rife with possibility: set in the present (presumably in Miami), a Cuban patriarch is dying in his bed at home and his sons and half-sons struggle with unresolved (and in some cases, deeply buried) feelings of guilt, resentment and (most interestingly) passionate paternal love. Their anxious interactions during this 24-hour period (?) belie a number of other inner conflicts—what is it to be a Cuban, an American, a Cuban American? What is it to be a man, a heterosexual, a lover, a friend, a son? And exactly what is to be done with women?
His questions are compelling, but Garces’s language here—and I do not know his many other plays, produced in and out of New York—is heavily influenced by Mamet and does not escape his idiomatic shadow. The content is simply too angry to be haunting, or to allow for other, more complex subtexts. Thus it was hard for me to feel something for these characters when they—and their creator—were feeling everything for me. Instead of toning down the harshness, or finding ambiguities in (between) the lines, director Gia Forakis seems to have heightened this already heightened text and has her actors flatly and relentlessly barking back and forth, pausing only rarely (and hardly pregnantly). This choice is isolating without being informative.
I can only assume that both Garces and Forakis wish for us to know that there are hidden aggressions behind the most banal interactions. Though each character is wounded and wary, the more successful performances here resist stating the obvious. Andrés Munar as Eladio, the “good” son—something of a pushover, yes, but the one who is most earnestly trying—every so often succumbs to said style, but is nonetheless sympathetic and more than watchable (which is fortunate since he has the most stage time). Ivan Quintanilla (as Ricky, a family friend, and potential closet case, who is trying desperately to be a good guy and a guy’s guy) and Jenny Maguire (as an inexperienced erotic dancer who is having trouble distinguishing between guys’ desires and her own) fare even better—perhaps their scenes are slightly less contentious. But the two actors imbue their characters with an irrepressible sense of playfulness and hope. Again, this may be complicit with how their roles are written.
Peter West’s lighting and Robin Vest’s sets are economical, imaginative, and may know more about what this play hopes to convey than the director or the writer themselves. Also, there’s a lengthy scene with nudity and some well-lit simulated sex so if, as you reach the end of this review, you were still thinking about bringing the kids, maybe don’t.