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'american (tele)visions' review — a technological marvel with a static narrative

Diep Tran
Diep Tran

Two words best describe american (tele)visions at New York Theatre Workshop: sensory overload. The play is the theatrical equivalent of flipping through dozens of channels on the television, never being able to land on something to watch. On this channel, the characters are on a video game quest. Now they’re in a Walmart. Now they’re on a cop show. Now they’re witnessing a meteor show. In other words, american (tele)visions is a lot.

Victor I. Cazares's play opens up at Walmart, as an undocumented Mexican family do their weekly shopping together. The tomboy daughter Erica (Blanca “b” Norwood) is in the boys’ toys aisle, the closeted gay son Alejandro (Clew) in the guns aisle, the father Octavio (Raúl Castillo) in the television aisle, and the mother Maria (Elia Monte-Brown) running around the store buying food and cleaning supplies for her family. 

Erica narrates the story, categorizing her family not as people but as a collection of objects. “We are the things we make,” she says. “My father is a television.” But it’s not just because of overconsumption. The family lives in a trailer and works in factories, making chain-link fences and mobile homes. Their only mental escape from the drudgery is the television. Erica repeats those phrases, such as “my father is a television” and “my brother Alejandro is an unlabeled VHS cassette tape,” likely because those who are poor and undocumented, who perform the labor that Americans refuse to do, are never given an identity. It’s a poignant metaphor, rife with possibility. 

Unfortunately, american (tele)visions never give the characters personalities or growth beyond the objects they are associated with, leaving them one-dimensional and archetypes of the fallen American dream. american (tele)visions goes back-and-forth through time, slowly unfolding the story of a family who comes to the country with hope, but is eventually torn apart by tragedy. The narrative propulsion of the play comes not from the characters developing or growing or persevering, but through them (and the audience) discovering each other’s secrets. 

The central disruption to the family is that Alejandro is gay and had a Vietnamese lover named Jesse. The narrative potential of Alejandro having a lover who is also an immigrant is never fully explored besides an ill-conceived joke about boat people. And the confounding decision to have Alejandro and Jesse be played by the same actor (Clew, who has trouble differentiating either character in their performance) means both characters are never anything more than tokens of gay suffering or prejudice. This is most troubling in the character of Jesse, who now lives with the family for an unexplained reason and mostly serves as a helper to them. The racial implication of casting an Asian man as a passive assistant is troubling.

Elia Monte-Brown and Ryan J. Haddad (as Erica’s best friend Jeremy, who is also closeted) are the most adept at navigating the show's many tonal shifts, able to quickly switch from pathos to camp. Raúl Castillo is given one mode to play the entire show, an emotionally absent father, though Castillo (through his innate sensitivity and charisma) is able to bring some sadness and regret to the one-dimensional role. 

Bianca “b” Norwood as Erica is given the lion’s share of the text. Some of it is cliche and on the nose, such as “Dad, you’re a television. You’re a television in the television aisle at Walmart. Always on but never present. Always a demo and never free.” Norwood is moving in the part, but one wishes she was given more to do than be an anxious chronicler of her family’s pain. 

Despite the swirling projections and the peek-a-boo sets, at its core, american (tele)visions is a static portrait of a family in pain. There is no absolution or hope, just trauma with no release. Towards the end of the play, Maria tells her daughter, “Don’t have children. Love things that are replaceable. Easy to find.” If that’s the message american (tele)visions wants to leave for its characters, and its audience, it’s probably best to pick up the remote and change the channel.

american (tele)visions is at New York Theatre Workshop through October 16. Get american (tele)visions tickets now.

Photo credit: Ryan J. Haddad, Bianca "b" Norwood, and Clew in american (tele)visions at New York Theatre Workshop. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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