Review by Donna Herman
January 24, 2017
There’s an exciting new voice in the theater and it’s at The Atlantic Theater Company by way of Puerto Rico. Paola Lázaro, a young playwright with an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University, is the Atlantic’s 2016/2017 Tow Foundation Playwright-in-Residence. She’s set Tell Hector I Love Him, her first play to be produced professionally, in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A stark but empathetic love letter to her native land, Ms. Lazaro writes with humor and directness about the lives of the people there.
Tell Hector I Love Him is centered around Mostro’s Bodega and the barrio outside the walls of Old San Juan, once home to slaves and slaughterhouses. The brilliant set by Clint Ramos captures the area simply and perfectly with graffitied stone walls creating a dungeon-like space. This is topped by a row of video screens across the entire stage, playing an endless rolling surf with bright, sunny skies.
The set’s juxtaposition of the dark world below and the bright one above, creates an ongoing visual tension that is mirrored in each character we meet. Mostro (Juan Carlos Hernandez), the stable, responsible, calm, strong bodega owner who seems so patient and kind to everyone who comes into the store, but is rigid and domineering with his wife. His wife, Samira (Selenis Leyva), beautiful, sweet, helpful in the store, kind to customers, obedient to her husband’s wishes, turns out to be deeply unhappy.
Palito (Sean Carvajal) and Jeison (Victor Almanzar) are brothers. Jason is older, bigger, and stronger and looks out for Palito who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and is a little slow but has a quick temper. Jeison is a drug dealer and has taken Palito into the business and rescued him from a bad family situation where he was being beaten up either by their father or the boys on the bus. But neither of them seem to be able to make smart choices with the women in their lives. Palito is hanging out with one of the local girls, Tati (Analisa Velez), who is just using him for money, free drugs and pretty good sex. Jeison has fallen in love with a friend’s wife, who is just using him.
The local girls are in no great shape either. Tati and Malena (Dascha Polenco) are best friends. Malena is the local beauty. Everyone is in love with her but she won’t give any man the time of day. She was beaten so badly by her father that she left home at a young age and feels guilty for leaving her mother to bear the brunt of her father’s rage. And Tati has been traumatized by an ex-boyfriend who told her that her vagina looked like ground beef and now she’s convinced it’s ugly. There’s a new young girl who comes around, Isis (Yadira Guevara-Prip), who is 16 or 17 and who is infatuated with Malena’s beauty. She is very direct and waits for Malena outside a club and tells Malena how beautiful she is and that she wants to hang out with her. She’s small and fearless, but it turns out she’s sick with some illness that she won’t deal with. Then there’s Hugo (Flaco Navaja), the coke-head who sees his dead father when he snorts, and El Mago (Luis Vega), the Magician who hangs around the square doing magic card tricks for tips. Charming and friendly, he’s tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide so he can join his dead wife.
Lazaro has drawn some wonderful characters, and her dialogue is extraordinary. She clearly knows this world intimately. She’s a smart and lucky young woman to work with the caliber of people that she has surrounded herself with. Selenis Leyva (“Orange Is the New Black”) who gave a nuanced, touching and believable performance as Samira. Newcomer Sean Carvajal was dynamic, funny, and heartbreaking as the challenged Palito. Victor Almanzar as Jeison has impeccable comic timing paired with a naturalistic style that made his portrayal of the love-sick stupidity of his character actually charming. The scene between Jeison and Mostro, played by the outstanding Juan Carlos Hernandez, an experienced actor and stand-up comedian in NY, where Jeison confesses his sins, was brilliant. Both funny and agonizing.
However, there’s an embarrassment of riches in the character heavy Tell Hector I Miss Him that muddies the waters and leaves us in limbo. There are so many characters and stories that the focus gets lost, story lines don’t get resolved, and we’re left feeling confused about what the take-away is. We’ve spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the theater, but we’re not sure who and what it was about. I read an interview with Ms. Lazaro and Adam Szymkowicz in which her advice to new playwrights was to write and avoid editing. Just get everything out. “There will be time for editing later. Trust. Don’t fuck with the editor before you have to.” Ding Dong. Editor calling. It’s time.
"While it is populated by some sharply drawn characters dangling eccentricities and pathologies (addiction foremost among them), and features some passages of biting humor, this darkish comedy-drama lacks focus and narrative drive."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"The author, who’s from Puerto Rico, wisely refrains from tying up any plot threads with a bow. Life’s not tidy. The play, presented by the Atlantic Theater, isn't either, and it’s better for it."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Unfortunately, the dozen downtrodden characters in Lázaro’s debut play, Tell Hector I Miss Him, are more likely to try your patience than inspire your empathy."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
"Although a bit overstuffed and unfocused, this raucous dark comedy marks an auspicious debut for its 28-year-old Puerto Rican playwright."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Life, in all its messy glory, overflows the stage of the Atlantic Theater Company in this dynamically staged production of 'Tell Hector I Miss Him.' Paola Lazaro’s animated ensemble piece unearths the volatile residents of a close-knit community living underground in Old San Juan, and a vibrant acting company — directed by David Mendizabal and featuring two 'Orange Is the New Black' cast members — breathes life into every quirky character."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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