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Hold the Pickles, Hold the Poison

Of the potentially kooky types of people that could be dumped into a play -- lawyers, clairvoyants, fast-food servers, and dying parents -- the most unwieldy are the clairvoyants. Even if an audience buys the notion of second sight, the playwright is still stuck with a peculiar problem: how to get around the fact that a clairvoyant already knows everything that's going to happen. That's just one nub plaguing Edwin Sanchez's drama Unmerciful Good Fortune, which is being given its Florida premiere at the New Theatre in Coral Gables.

The play focuses on two women -- one a criminal, the other the district attorney assigned to her case -- who develop an intense bond. When Fatima, a fast-food worker, is indicted for murdering a number of her customers, she refuses to talk to anyone but Maritza. Maritza is not only a lawyer; she's a burned-out single mother who lives with her aging parents. When she meets Fatima, she's put off, not the least by the prisoner's spooky insistence to "give me a hand." No, Fatima doesn't want to be helped off the floor of her cell. She wants to touch the lawyer, the better to read her. This clairvoyant needs physical contact to cull the details of a subject's fate. But not on demand. "I don't do Bewitched," she tells one admirer.

This idiosyncratic handiwork is what got Fatima in trouble in the first place. As she explains it, she picked out 28 people who she felt didn't really want to live and poisoned them, thereby sending them through the eternal golden arches. "Where did you find 28 people who wanted to die?" asks Maritza. "Are you kidding," replies the sassy Fatima. "This is New York." OK, so she knows her victims want to die. Then why does she keep asking them -- in an eerie, repetitive singsong used in flashbacks -- if they "want fries with that?" I mean, doesn't she already know?

What Fatima knows or doesn't know isn't really what's at stake in Sanchez's 1996 drama. (The play premiered in Chicago, a coproduction of Northlight Theatre and Victory Gardens Theatre, and won the AT&T Onstage New Play Award.) But the notion that her gift is primarily a dramatic gimmick hovers over the story like an annoying ghost. She's clairvoyant when it suits the playwright, but her gift doesn't signify any emotional truth. Rather it allows Sanchez to bring together two characters and have them bond without really getting to know each other.

What Fatima learns about Maritza is, for the most part, already obvious. For instance, she "sees" that Maritza humors her sick mother by pretending to be her own dead twin. How does the audience know this? Because Maritza changes her voice and attitude whenever she does it. Fatima "sees" that Maritza is wary of relationships. Again, the way in which she interacts with her parents already says as much. What's difficult to glimpse is Fatima's conviction that Maritza provides her with spiritual relief. "Only you can pull the splinter from my heart," Fatima says. Maybe you need to have second sight to understand the kind of splinter she's talking about, but to me, Fatima's discomfort is no more exceptional than that of your average mass murderer. In fact, the typical NYPD Blue suspect comes with a more complex back-story than the criminal in this play. Why should anyone care about her?

Well, for one thing, in the New Theatre production, helmed by artistic director Rafael de Acha, Fatima is played by Iris Delgado, who infuses her role with urgency and intelligence. (Unfortunately that energy is largely missing from most of the cast.) In the performance I saw, early in the first week of the run, Delgado still had room to grow. But if her Fatima, a prickly-heat fever of a woman, continues to develop, Delgado should run off with the show by the time this review appears. Less sure of herself is Margot Moreland, who plays Maritza as one long, hapless sigh. She certainly changes physically when she switches between Maritza and her impression of her dead twin, but Moreland gives only a superficial sense of the emotional compromises her character makes.

Because Fatima and Maritza are at the heart of the play, they embody everything that works and doesn't work in it. (The less said about the supporting characters the better; I'm not convinced that they need to exist, especially if Fatima is able to conjure them merely by touching Maritza's hand.) Delgado and Moreland get great technical help. Carlos Arditti's scenic design divides the stage into D.A.'s office, Maritza's mother's bedroom and living room, and a police interrogation room by using chainlink fence segments, which suggest the urban angst shared by both women. De Acha, meanwhile, moves them through the play's changing locations -- and moods -- with precision and grace. Now he just has to get them to substitute acting for yelling when those moods grow intense.

Even Sanchez helps, to a degree. The one aspect of Unmerciful Good Fortune that lives and breathes is the idea of a connection between the two women. The dance they do around each other is fascinating, even if the script doesn't convey the fatalism Sanchez seems to be going for. I also didn't buy the premise that the women share a tragic vein, and their ultimate pairing seems synthetic.

What's compelling is Sanchez's juxtaposition of two Hispanic stereotypes: the good girl, a grown woman who still lives with her parents and is afraid to venture outside their safety net; and the bad girl, who grew up in gangs and is comfortable with confrontation. Not only that, but he allows them to duke it out with each other. When Hispanic women (in fact, most women, come to think of it) appear in plays, they tend to be delineated by the men in their lives -- not by other women. "I used to get beat up by girls like you," says one woman to another, dusting off an age-old, girls'-locker-room truth that still feels fresh.

If nothing else, Sanchez gives us a chance to wonder if these two seemingly disparate people have anything in common. The women play each other expertly. De Acha sets them up in two intense physical contests, one an arm wrestling competition, the other a kids' clapping game. Equally powerful is the verbal sparring. "Is that your hair color or is that just a feeble stab at assimilation?" says Fatima to the middle-class lawyer. Better educated but not above insults, Maritza replies: "Did you like wearing that funny paper hat to work?" These are fighting words, for sure, words that -- in a better play -- could open up brave new worlds.

Unmerciful Good Fortune.
Written by Edwin Sanchez. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring Chris Brown, Iris Delgado, Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas, Larry Jurrist, Margot Moreland, and Edna Schwab. Through May 24. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

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Robin Dougherty

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