PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Latinologues: Strangers in a Strange Land

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Latinologues: Strangers in a Strange Land It's extremely rare, if not entirely unprecedented, that a whole cast—and its director—make Broadway debuts on the same night, but this happened Oct. 13 when Latinologues bowed at the Helen Hayes Theatre in assorted shades of Spanish accents.
From Top: Rick Najera; Cheech Marin; Shirley A. Rumierk; Rene Lavan; Eugenio Derbez; Rosie Perez and Geraldo Rivera.
From Top: Rick Najera; Cheech Marin; Shirley A. Rumierk; Rene Lavan; Eugenio Derbez; Rosie Perez and Geraldo Rivera. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Rick Najera, who wrote these 12 monologues on American Latino life and then performed a fat quarter of them, marked the spot by addressing the assembled one-world of first-nighters, thanking "the hip Angelos who came to support us, our African American brothers and sisters and the confused Chinese." It was quite a welcome-wagon of an audience, and most of them made their way to the after-party two blocks away at Havana Central, a four-month-old club with a checkered U.N. history (it was previously O'Lunney's, and China Peace before that, and Upstairs at O'Neal's even before that.)

Herr Director, who is actually better known than the cast he was launching into the Broadway limelight, was Cheech Marin, long gone from Chong (like 22 years—where have you been?)—and a bit amazed to make his bow here in that kind of role. "I never thought I'd make my Broadway debut as a director," he admits. "This is, like, out of the blue. And I had a ball. I knew the material was good to start with—really, really well written and edgy. It leapfrogged expectations of a sophisticated Latino audience. It was very sophisticated material, and it played to a heretofore unrecognized-in-the-mainstream audience, and everybody got it. I'm not surprised. It played a big theatre in L.A., and it almost sold it out. For eight years, Rick has been traveling around the country with this, and, once the word got out, it always sold out. So I wasn't shooting in the dark here."

At least a hundred actors have passed in and out of the show in its crosscountry travels. The latest is Shirley A. Rumierk, the conspicuous girlie portion of the cast who more than holds her own with her three male co-stars—thanks to a hilarious study of a Miss Puerto Rican Day Parade beauty who turns ugly (and pistol-packing) when they try to relieve her of her crown. "The beauty about that piece," says Rumierk, "is that it critiques Latin-American dictatorships and all the aesthetic questions that a woman feels to look great. She totally takes it into her hands and twists the beauty pageant around, refuses to give up her crown, refuses to follow the orders of the judges—it's fantastic. It's, like, a woman's dream to be able to do that. Can you imagine that in a Miss American contest?"

Less zaftig than Sara Ramirez, Rumierk would make a plausible replacement for the Spamelot Tony winner if they scaled it down to "Lady of the Pond." But she looks quite convincing on her new turf. And how did she—born and raised in Hell's Kitchen, "a few blocks from the theatre," and educated at Harvard—come by her big Broadway break?

"It was one of those things like Showbiz Magic," she insists. "I was simply called in by the casting director. I had no manager, no agent. The casting director did commercial auditions and I had been to her office so she had me on file. I fit the description. I go in. I get the sides. I can't believe it. They're looking for a young Latin woman with comedic training. I leave my heart and soul in that audition—and I got it. Really, it's one of those needle-in-a haystack, once-in-a-lifetime things—but luck is when opportunity meets preparation, and that's what happened. The opportunity presented itself, and I made sure I was damned well prepared for it." Rene Lavan, who co-starred with Marin in Christmas with the Cranks and has done other crossover roles, is racking up a double Broadway debut with Latinologues—as performer and co-producer. "A virgin no more," he sighs happily. "I've been with the show for about three years, and to finally bring it to a Broadway stage like this is thrilling. Everything just came together tonight—to have the show embraced by so many people of all ethnicities. That's what America is about, and that's what the show is about. It's about Latin Americans. There are 40 million of us Latinos here. We saw movies like Spider Man and can't believe he could fly all over the city and not spot a Dominican window-washer. I'm not trying to dis Hollywood at all, but on the stage you have the liberty to really tell your stories that take those stereotypes and flip them upside down and, through laughter, get your message across."

Lavan scores in the laugh department—first as a busboy who fancies himself macho and then as the father of a puberty-steeped Elian Gonzalez—but his favorite portrayal is the unexpectedly poignant one of a Dominican janitor who worked at the World Trade Center. "It's an honor just to do this in New York, to give a voice to the Latinos who died in that tragedy that no one knows about because they were illegal aliens and, thus, undocumented. There was a story on Univision on the Spanish network about them, and that how Rick was inspired to write this piece. That I'm bringing that story to a Broadway stage is something I take real pride in."

Eugenio Derbez is a top name in Mexico, where his television sketch series has made him a household face, but he was plainly moved by his Broadway beachhead. "My story is really different from everyone else's," he says. "Two years and ten months ago, I went to L.A. to take English lessons, and my English teacher told me to go see Latinologues, which was playing a run there. Now I'm doing Latinologues on Broadway! Amazing!

"I've always been a Broadway fan. I came to New York when I was a child and saw the shows so, for me, this is a dream—really a dream come true. I'm really honored to be a Latin in a Broadway play. This opening night is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

Rosie Perez, fresh from finishing her documentary ("about the politics between the United States and Puerto Rico and how it changed the culture," she announces somberly), gave highest marks to Najera's caricaturing of a redneck border cop and an effete Hollywood producer.

Sherri Saum, who used up her "One Live To Live" a year ago when her character exited that series and this mortal coil, was on the arm of Karmar de los Reyes, whose character drove her to that extreme. Love apparently conquers all, and both loved the show. Geraldo Rivera arrived unrecognized under a furry raincoat, gallantly parked his gorgeous date in the lobby and then went off to park his car. He and Marin warmly embraced. One of The Mambo Kings whose reign ended in the San Francisco tryouts, Jaime Camil, was the evening's best sport, showing up to support Latinologues, which is going after the large Latino audience that Kings had hoped to court. That project is not entirely dead, Camil says. "They're saying in six or seven months they'll get back on track, and there's talk of a Vegas version."

Meanwhile, he has a movie opening Nov. 4 called 7 Days and another he'll start shooting later that month in Miami called I Love Miami (plot: "Fidel Castro, for some reason, arrives in Miami on a raft like most Cubans"). He is also going out for "Law and Order" and is one of the three dozen entertainers who'll be performing in "Standing Ovations IV," the New Orleans benefit that Richard Jay-Alexander is staging Oct. 16 at Joe's Pub. Long live the King!

MTV deejay Quiddus likewise dug the show: "It brought to life for me the Latin perspective, which I did not know much about prior to this. Some theatre tends to be very engrossed in itself, but this was very inclusive. It was very engaging, and it also happened to be an education for anybody who wasn't a Latin." Which was, of course, the desired effect.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben