Review: Old Globe’s touching ‘El Borracho’ an unconventional family story
Tony Meneses’ world premiere dramedy examines the corrosive effects of alcoholism on a Mexican-American family
From the moment audience members enter the Old Globe’s theater-in-the-round to watch Tony Meneses’ world premiere play “El Borracho,” they can quickly guess what’s to come.
They’ll see the small and tidy American apartment of Alma, a divorced Mexican immigrant who has surrounded herself with family photos, agave plants, votive candles, religious statuary and a large crucifix. But the “landscape” that surrounds Alma’s apartment — boldly designed with knowing insight by David Israel Reynoso — is a brimming sea of empty alcohol bottles and beer cans.
“El Borracho” is the name of the drunkard card in the Mexican bingo-style game of Lotería. Of course, this story must be about alcoholism. And it is, but it’s much more than that. Meneses based this bittersweet, funny and moving comedy-drama on his own family experience, so the script’s three characters are grounded in honesty. This feels like a real American family story with characters who have rough edges and defy stereotypes.
At a brisk 90 minutes, the story covers a lot of ground quickly. The dynamics of this family are well sketched in, but I wanted to know these characters better, particularly Alma’s son, David, a closeted gay Mexican-American playwright who is Meneses’ alter-ego.
Directed by Edward Torres with comic dash, freeze-frame action and playful between-scenes choreography, “El Borracho” is the story of Alma’s ex-husband, Raul, an alcoholic pizza deliveryman who is dying of a never-specified illness and needs a place to stay in his final weeks. At the urging of their son, David, Alma grudgingly takes Raul in. She feeds him, buys his medicine and keeps watch over Raul, but she cannot forgive him for the hell he put her through during their 25-year marriage.
Conflicts erupt between all three characters, but there are also unexpected flights of joy, dancing, music, love and laughter. Most of these lighter moments appear to be Raul’s end-stage bouts of delirium, where he remembers the good old days and he imagines himself to be a better man than he is.
As Raul, Jesse J. Perez gives a marvelous, multifaceted performance that’s very funny, as well as charming, quirky, proud and mournful. The wonderful Zilah Mendoza plays Alma with the steely resolve of a woman who refuses to be hurt again by a man incapable of change. And an understatted Matthew Martinez brings a youthful, nervous energy to David, who may love his flawed parents but keeps them at an emotional distance to protect himself and his secrets.
Mextly Couzin designed the neon-style lighting, David R. Molina designed the original music and sound and scenic designer Reynoso also designed the costumes, which include a spangled Mexican cowboy ensemble that pops up in one of Raul’s hallucinations.
“El Borracho” is the first of two Latinx family story plays at the Globe this year. Coming up in May is playwright Melinda Lopez’s “Mala,” a solo play about a daughter’s complex relationship with her dying Cuban emigré mother during a cold Boston winter. On select dates, another actress will perform the play in Spanish.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 20.
Where: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Tickets: $29 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required or proof of negative result of a COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of showtime. Masks are required at all times indoors.
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