'Bees and Honey' review — perfect pair of performances makes this romantic tragedy shine
Read our four-star review of Bees and Honey, written by Guadalís Del Carmen and directed by Melissa Crespo, off Broadway at MCC Theater through June 11.
"I can't find any other heart that knows how to compare to me; when I arrive to your door, the bee arrives to the honeycomb." Those are the closing lyrics of the bachata song "Como abeja al panal" — "like a bee to the honeycomb" — by Juan Luis Guerra, which inspired Guadalís Del Carmen's Off-Broadway debut play, Bees and Honey, at MCC Theater in collaboration with The Sol Project.
Guerra's song is about a forbidden passion, whereas Del Carmen's play is about a marriage. But both depict a deep, desperate love between two people that's either the best thing to ever happen to them or the thing that will destroy them.
In Bees and Honey, Manuel and Johaira, the only two characters on stage in the play's 2 hours, initially fall for each other while dancing bachata (a theme I wish was incorporated more throughout). Subtly and naturally, they gradually lose their inhibitions and melt into each other. It evokes the age-old cliche, "the rest of the world faded away," a feeling that extends to the audience thanks to Reza Behjat's hypnotic lighting. Soon enough, they're married and living in a Washington Heights apartment, hoping to have a child, hoping to advance their careers, hoping, unspoken, to change each other.
Lots more familiar tropes pop up throughout Del Carmen's script: judgmental in-laws, the impending move-in of an ailing mother, the shadow of class differences (Johaira is a lawyer from a higher-class background; Manuel is a working-class owner of a mechanic shop) lurking beneath their arguments. They don't read so much as tropes, though, as much as painfully common obstacles of marriage. Whether Manuel and Johaira can surmount them, once the novelty of each other has worn off and they can't skate by on carefree romance, is the question.
Of course, that setup as a whole is familiar. What sets Del Carmen's script apart, even as its scenes are structurally repetitve at times, is that she shows a couple actively trying, or at least trying to try, to work on themselves. I one scene, for example, Manuel interrupts Johaira as she rehearses a court statement; in a later one, he watches her proudly from the doorframe, waiting until she's finished. Making bigger changes is a bit harder — Johaira doesn't like to compromise, Manuel resists therapy, and both throw themselves into their jobs at the expense of each other — but the small moments of triumph make you want to root for them.
That's also a testament to the actors, both perfectly cast as the opposites-attract (another classic trope) pair. Xavier Pacheco endears as the cheeky Manuel, whose lack of interest in academia belies a deep sensitivity and emotional intuition. He is fiercely loyal, especially to his family, and commits 100% to all he does, and Pacheco never holds back from playing him to the fullest degree of all his feelings.
Opposite him, Maribel Martinez is captivating as the savvy, booksmart Johaira, who undergoes a truly heartbreaking 180 when unforeseen tragedy strikes. Though one misfortune (yes, there are multiple) is predictable early on, it is no less devastating and shocking to watch Martinez crumple under its weight, showing how grief can change a person into someone entirely new.
Performed mostly in English with plenty of Dominican Spanish phrases peppered in, Bees and Honey may be familiar in many places, but it depicts a distinctly Latino love story, and the deep love the playwright, actors, and excellent director Melissa Crespo have for these characters' community is evident. That almost makes Bees and Honey two love stories in one.
Photo credit: Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco in Bees and Honey. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
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