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    Daunting Dante

    Alejandro Morales's ambitious play "expat/inferno," about a young American wandering the streets of Paris searching for his lost lover, largely succeeds in expressing something ethereal about the nature of longing and grief.


    "expat/inferno" is a dense, difficult play with the dreamlike logic of David Lynch's better films. Indeed, the opening line, repeated throughout, is "You are dreaming." The play's structure is loosely but explicitly built around Dante's "Inferno." Danny (read: Dante) is a young Cuban-American living in post-9/11 New York City. During a visit to the gay bar Cock, he meets expatriate French chanteuse Beatrice (also from "Inferno"), who inspires him to travel to Paris and seek out his former lover, X.

    Written by: Alejandro Morales.
    Directed by: Scott Ebersold.
    Cast: Drew Cortese, Judith Delgado, Mark H. Dold, Jason Griffin, Polly Lee, Nathan M. White.
    Sound design by: Nathan Lively.
    Set design by: Jo Winiarski.
    Costumes by: Jessica Waters.
    Lighting design by: Greg Emetaz.
    Bottle Factory Theater
    195 East 3rd Street
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    The story of a young American wandering the streets of Paris searching for his lost lover while constantly referencing Dante and Proust could easily become self-indulgent and pretentious, but playwright Alejandro Morales is careful to inject enough humor into his text to help alleviate this danger. Lines like "The world is overrun with mediocrity and the American homosexual is not immune" and "One man's hell is another man's Champs lyses" provoked enough laughter to lighten the atmosphere and alleviate any frustration elicited by the intentionally elusive plot. The dream-conceit, too, goes a long way towards excusing moments that might otherwise feel avant-clich.

    A few elements do seem more heavy-handed than clever, like the name of the Caf Amnesia, where Danny avoids his traumatic memories, or a journey across the river to find the underground club l'Inferno. When Magda, a woman who may or may not believe herself to be Danny's mother, reads postcards that may or may not belong to Danny, she does so directly beneath a bare light bulb, which she switches off just before revealing who really wrote the card. This happens multiple times throughout the play, one of several leitmotifs that contribute to the musical, dreamlike structure, but by the third time actress Judith Delgado fumbled for the light while mysteriously withholding the crucial information, a few chuckles scattered through the audience. The production had, briefly, lost its footing and was starting to feel a little silly.

    For the most part, though, director Scott Ebersold worked in concert with his design team to complement the heightened, poetic feel of the text with an equally heightened visual poetry. Jo Winiarski's spare, evocative set was dominated by a translucent curtain constructed from sheets of paper. This curtain stood in for several things at different points in the action, but was primarily an enigmatic image with a vague connection to the trauma of September 11, and an opportunity for lighting designer Greg Emetaz to add some diffuse backlighting to the stark, often single-source lights onstage. Postcards were scattered in piles around the periphery of the stage, a constant reminder of an early line about postcards proving you've been somewhere. Nathan Lively's sound design helped tie together the atmosphere and logic of the play's structure without drawing undue attention to itself.

    The performances were mostly strong as well. Delgado is wonderful, an experienced actress with strong presence and a tendency to steal scenes by infusing them with intelligence and energy. Drew Cortese, as Danny, convincingly throws himself into the emotional acrobatics demanded by the text but never loses sight of his role as anchor and guide on a journey as potentially confusing for the audience as for his character. Polly Lee plays two versions of Beatrice with different accents and different attitudes, clearly relishing her role as enigmatic muse. Nathan M. White's Kenny is sexy and sweet, but the actor struggles a little with his character's end-of-play emotional meltdown, seeming to push himself to a frantic, superficial hysteria rather than the deeper catharsis called for by the text. Jason Griffin, in what is probably the play's most difficult role (the multipresent go-go garon), attacks it with vigor but falls short of the precision and clarity necessary to fully succeed. Mark H. Dold (X) skillfully moves between dream-ghost and more fully fleshed memory, but doesn't ultimately leave much of an impression.

    It would be a mistake to define "expat/inferno" too reductively. It's a play about the fallibility of memory, the process of grief, the alienation of minorities, and the ongoing trauma of New Yorkers who woke up one day to find themselves in a city they didn't recognize and a world they didn't understand. Morales has the confidence to demand a great deal from his collaborators and his audience, and while any play this ambitious opens itself to quibbles and criticisms, it establishes its author as a voice to be reckoned with in New York theater.

    AUGUST 13, 2003

    Reader comments on expat/inferno:

  • Expat/Inferno feel the burn   from Jay, Aug 26, 2003
  • DREW   from Lauren Noyes, Mar 25, 2005
  • Re: DREW   from Drew Cortese, May 26, 2005
  • Thanks Drew   from Lauren Noyes, Jun 14, 2005

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