In case you are wondering which side of the fence playwright Richard Montoya is on when it comes to the immigration issue, there's a clue on the title page of the program for his play, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, getting its East Coast premiere at Yale Rep: "Fronteas: Cicatrizes en la Tierra." Translation: "The border is a scar."
The border between the United States and Mexico and the lives of some people on both sides of its history get a humorous, fractured treatment with a view from the political left in this work which emerges as an engaging yet disappointing commentary on the American Dream.
The tale of Juan José (René Millán), who leaves behind his pregnant wife, Lydia (Nicole Shaloub) to escape police corruption in Mexico and to find a better life for them all north of the border, is engaging because of its tongue-in-cheek humor (he crosses the dessert to America accompanied by singing musicians) and gifted performances from the ensemble (directed by Shana Cooper) who bring to life characters from all walks of life who embody the unending ballad that is the American dream. Montoya's writing is impassioned, witty and insightful and we can't help but come away knowing that we and our family history are part of the Night too.
The play disappoints, however, when it allows leftist politics a soapbox. In a contentious political climate leading up to the November presidential election, we don't need reminding about how divided Americans are ideologically, particularly in play that is supposed to be about our common dream and goals. This production of American Night even is updated Montoya (who also is a member of the cast) to include a number of slams against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to give it a current flair, which is fine, but protecting the other side from satirical digs draws a border line in the sand. Shouldn't we expect the current administration to answer for the Fast and Furious scandal in a play about border conflict being updated to include current issues? Or what about the issue of amnesty to bolster the numbers of Latino voters? Or what about the administration suing states to prevent them from enforcing immigration laws? Wouldn't they be fair game too?
Takings sides in the growing ideological rift between political extremes in our own nation proves to be a wound that won't heal in the face of asking us to look at the "scar" of the border issue. It disappointingly prevents the play from becoming a witty, guffaw-inducing masterpiece like the brilliant political satire Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, for example. That one roasts the whole political process and American history and leaves you laughing and shaking your head a long time after.
AMERICAN NIGHT's agenda of putting down the Right, demonizing the border and pointing out America's flaws while barely touching on the what makes it exceptional – and motivates and excites many to become part of it, after all -- is about as welcome as the "help" offered by two Mormons prepping Juan José for his citizenship exam by surreptitiously getting him to pray to "their" god and to read The Book of Mormon. It may be well intentioned, but makes us wince.
That said, the play still holds our interest and gives us plenty of opportunities for laughter through the zany tale set told against an ever-changing background enhanced by video projections (Scenic Design by Kristen Robinson; Projection Design by Paul Lieber). Also helping to create atmosphere are Lighting Designer Masha Tsimring, Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan , really amusing Choreography by Ken Roht and fight direction by Rick Sordelet.
Juan José arrives in the USA, thankfully goes through the proper channels to get his green card, then prepares to take the citizenship exam (there is a hanging question about whether he really desires citizenship or simply must do this to achieve his goals). He crams the night before the test quizzing himself with the help of flashcards containing information like the names of the three branches of government, the original 13 colonies and the date of Independence Day.
"Cinco de Mayo," he groggily replies as his thoughts drift to Lydia back in Mexico. He falls into an exhausted sleep that gives new meaning to the term "all nighter."
In his dream, Juan finds himself at various events in history, starting with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to end the Mexican-American War, complete with some tongue in cheek dislaogue:
"We guarantee that all Mexican citizens currently living in the Territories will receive American Citizenship."
"Son of a gun I missed that boat!"
"We shall also annex Texas, Utah and parts of Oregon."
"Oregon no! I give you New Jersey but not Oregon, cabron!"
Juan also gets into trouble at other times in history visiting with well known characters like Teddy Roosevelt, Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea and Jackie Robinson as well as with some folks who have been lost in history like Ben and Viola Pettus (a nurse in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic,) labor organizer and immigrant Harry Bridges, hippies at Woodstock and Japanese Americans interred at Manzanar among others. Cast members play multiple roles. Richard Ruiz stands out with some truly humorous portrayals and Costume designer Martin T. Schnellinger gets a workout (and rises creatively to the challenge). Some rough transitions with dialogue that is rushed and not easily understood, however, lend to some confusion as Juan continues his dream travels.
It's amusing, insightful and almost – but for that Left leaning -- a humor classic. American Night is the product of Montoya's performance collective, Culture Clash. Its world premiere was in 2010 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
AMERICAN NIGHT runs through Oct. 13 at the University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Tickets run from $20 to $96 and are available here: www.yalerep.org, 203- 432-1234, Yale Rep Box Office, 1120 Chapel St. at York Street. Performance times vary.