'Toros' review — a bullish trio of friends locks horns
Read our review of Danny Tejera's Toros, this year's Second Stage Theater Uptown Series production, at the McGinn/Cazale Theater through August 13.
I couldn't get out of the 90-degree heat fast enough as the gloriously air-conditioned McGinn/Cazale Theater beckoned. Through August 13, it offers a reprieve from the sweltering summer days in the form of Toros, a new play set during... a sweltering summer day. Ah, well. Can't escape that easy. At least for the next 90 minutes, albeit hit-and-miss ones, I was in Madrid.
That may seem glamorous to us Americans, but as rendered by set designer Arnulfo Maldonado in Danny Tejera's play, the Spanish capital is no different than a suburban hometown, perhaps the kind your high school self longed to escape. All we see of it is an unfinished garage-turned-living space: A desk and laptop serve as the "office" (read: amateur DJ booth) of 26-year-old Juan (Juan Castano), who also makeshifts a living room from a loveseat, coffee table, and plastic chair, sandwiched in the space between the "office," his parents' Audi, and lots of garden-variety junk.
It’s stuffed bordering on stifling. Toros takes place over the course of a few pregames Juan hosts for his friends Toro (Abubakr Ali) and Andrea (b), an appropriate setup, as we meet these characters at transitional phases before they move on to other things — or try to. Juan isn’t particularly happy about playing host — or living in the garage at all — preferring to devote his attention to practicing his (unimpressive) DJing so he can finally make it out. That’s about all he’ll do, though. Toro at least escaped to New York, but crippling disillusionment with life brought him back. And Andrea, a kindergarten teacher with roots in multiple countries, now searches for stability, looking for it in the wrong people: these high school friends who should have all long outgrown each other.
We immediately get that sense upon Andrea’s arrival, when Juan starts relentlessly mocking Toro for his crush on her in order to mask his own. Things escalate from there, as Juan's trying to mask a lot more than that: a self-destructive impulse to push everyone else away; a deep insecurity in himself; an unwillingness to take any responsibility for the harm he inflicts on others, physical and emotional. Problem is, we never quite learn why, though there’s clearly more going on than a half-requited crush. Following a climatic incident (after which the play goes on 15 minutes too long), he offers a stunned Andrea a vague spiel about going through mental and emotional trouble. It's not a specific or deep enough reason to invest in him as a character.
All the characters, to a degree, feel underwritten. Toro and Andrea exist mostly as collateral damage in Juan’s self-destruction. They do get the play’s best scene: a vulnerable conversation in which they reveal their Tragic Backstories and probe meaty ideas about whether life is worth living — or "real" at all — if we're always doing what's expected of us. But one scene does not a full character — or thought-provoking play — make, especially as their last onstage conversation is mostly small talk. To Tejera's credit, neither their lofty debate nor their awkward patter feels like a playwright's hand at work; he has a knack for authentic dialogue.
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch's production is nonetheless buoyed by its cast, particularly the effortlessly magnetic b. Alongside the trio is Frank Wood as Juan's aging dog, Tica. While Wood is commendably game, the presence of the dog is mostly distracting, her intended significance unclear until she, too, becomes a pivotal plot device in service of Juan’s arc.
The play ends on an abrupt and ambiguous note, Juan mysteriously far from the action even as his presence still looms large in the garage despite all the other characters actually being there. It’s the time we most want to see him, to finally understand the reason for his anger and its impact not just on the others, but on himself. We still never get it. It’s not fully out of Tejera’s reach, though — with a little deepening of character, Toros has potential to charge forward.
Photo credit: Juan Castano and b in Toros. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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