photo by Joan Marcus
Miss You Like Hell, at The Public Theater, is topical and timely, a musical about a Mexican resident of the US who’s requesting a stay of deportation (it’s also called a “cancellation of removal”, as if the individual were an object). But the play presents in its foreground not a political issue but a genuine personal drama. If it’s uneven, its concept is solid.
The character with the looming deportation hearing in Los Angeles is Beatriz. She surprises her daughter in Philadelphia, Olivia, whom she hasn’t seen in years, with a visit and an invitation to accompany her on a westward road trip for a week. The substance of the play is the mother/daughter bonding on this geographical and spiritual trip, accusation and forgiveness.
There are events on this road trip, but they’re episodes; one doesn’t lead to another. Early on the trip, they meet a pair of older gay men who travel the country getting married in each state (they’re on their 24th state). The men are unexpected and appealing for us. After they’ve been introduced to us, however, they only show up once again. They’re never assimilated into the plot, and we miss them.
And there’s some confusion when Beatriz is stopped for a traffic violation. She has no license so she displays someone else’s, and for some reason she gets away with it. At any rate, the incident has no impact on the story. It just passes, like a thunderstorm.
Mother and daughter also meet a tamales vendor and, happily, he remains in the story, a romantic object for Beatriz. But even he is not woven into the action. The script exhibits the problem that even our good playwrights have with structure.
The songs are undistinguished pop melodies with some cool lyrics: “My bones hurt because you’re not at my side.” and “When you’re home, sad conquistador, you will be received.” More interesting are the arrangements, with an ensemble of keyboards, percussion, accordion, viola, guitar, bass and cello. The chorus claps sometimes - and snaps their fingers! Neat!
The production is very well executed. Lear Debessonet’s direction is clear and crisp. The pacing never dwells and never rushes. The actors are handsome on their revolving stage with the ensemble and musicians behind them. The set is indifferently pleasing with its blue back wall and floor.
Daphne Rubin-Vega carries the play with a nimble performance as the worldly Beatriz. She sings well and acts with subtlety and assurance. We grow to care about her quickly. Gizel Jimenez, in the role of Olivia, is an absolutely terrific singer. However, as an actress she is too often on a single emotion, usually anger. When she tells her mother “You’re garbage,” we see no conflict in her. Danny Bolero gives a sensitive, effective performance as the tamales vendor. He’s a very fine singer, and in fact the show’s best moment occurs when he sings with a delicate guitar accompaniment.
“I will speak! I will be as loud as necessary! I will fight,” Beatrice says at her hearing, having found her surety through her daughter. The ending that follows is brilliant - striking, mature playwrighting - but the trip to get there, like all road trips, sometimes feels long. And so we enjoy Miss You Like Hell as we can, by the moment.