In ‘Alma’ and ‘Apartment Living,’ Kitchen Sink Realism Returns to Theater in LA
Kitchen sink drama, the genre that brought social realism to the stage in the sound of dirty dishes, is widely dismissed as a mid-20th century relic.
What began as a revolution at the hands of playwrights such as Clifford Odets, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker to move theater from posh drawing rooms and into working-class apartment buildings has morphed into the kind of mundane family drama that was too busy doing elaborate work eating leftover psychology to worry about politics or the economy. Two recent world premieres, however, breathe new life into the old tradition by reconnecting the drama to the social conditions of its characters.
Boni B. Alvarez’s “Apartment Living” at Skylight Theater (until April 24) and Benjamin Benne’s “Alma” at Kirk Douglas Theater (until April 3) invite us into the cramped homes of ordinary Angelenos, some with decent jobs, others struggling to get by. Blacks, Americans of Mexican origin and Americans of Filipino origin, they are fighting against all odds for a part of the American dream.
These characters have little in common with the Southern California vision promulgated on so-called “reality television.” It’s a peculiar fact of modern life that the Kardashian mansions occupy so much space in the popular imagination compared to the realities that many Angelenos experience, but the scene offers an opportunity to set the record straight.
“Apartment Living,” a co-production between Playwrights’ Arena and Skylight Theater Co., revolves around two sets of neighbors in a small Los Feliz apartment complex. The play begins just as the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping through the local community. These two households, familiar strangers to each other, exist in parallel universes that unexpectedly intersect.
“Alma” takes place in a small one-bedroom apartment in La Puente in the period following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election but before his inauguration. Alma, an undocumented Mexican mother, and Angel, her 17-year-old American-born daughter, are the occupants of this apartment, which is both a pressure cooker of domestic tensions and a refuge from a political environment of increasingly resentful.
Privacy is a luxury the characters in these dramas cannot afford. Perhaps that’s why secrets abound in both “Apartment Living” and “Alma.” Life is too messy for complete transparency.
In “Apartment Living,” Cassandra (Charrell Mack) and Alex (Gabriel Leyva) make final preparations for their wedding when the pandemic hits. Alex, an actor, loses his gig at the restaurant just as Cassandra, a business manager, is forced to work from home.
Claustrophobia will be familiar to anyone who has shared a living space that suddenly became a classroom and a home office. As resentments grow between Cassandra and Alex, the economic seams of their relationship begin to show.
In one scene, Alex expresses his fury at the automated phone system that is standing in the way of his unemployment benefits just as Cassandra demands that he make a decision on whether to postpone their wedding due to COVID-19. The two are out of sync, financially and sexually, with the couch serving as a second bedroom.
The pandemic is not causing so much as exacerbating the existing problems between them. But the impossible cost of housing in Los Angeles can influence the path of a couple’s future just as much as love.
Meanwhile, next door, Easter (Gigette Reyes), a nurse, wants her son, Dixon (Andrew Russel), a grocery clerk, to take the virus that suddenly floods his hospital with patients more seriously. Her attitude is cavalier, until her mother ends up in intensive care.
Alvarez connects these two apartments in a way that highlights the opacity of identity. Alex and Dixon turn out to know each other. Whether you find their connection shocking will depend on your willingness to accept that the person closest to you may not be who you think they are.
The chain of relationships in “Apartment Living” not only suggests that an intimate partner, relative or close friend might be wearing a mask, but that a stranger at the grocery store – in this case, a random white lady (played by Rachel Sorsa) – or a neighbor you barely talk to might see you more clearly and with more compassion than a loved one.
The production, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, employs unnecessarily heavy stage design. Alex Calle’s sets are put together by the actors, a Sisyphean task not worth it for apartments that are only generically portrayed. Why not keep the fleet staged and abstract? It’s realism with all the heavy weight but little visual gain.
The play’s structure is elegant, though it’s unclear how well Alvarez knows his characters. Actors are tasked with filling in incomplete sketches, and sometimes they seem lost.
Still, “Apartment Living” gives a textured idea of what the past two years have been like cooped up in our homes. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”, hell is defined as other people with whom we are inevitably trapped. In “Apartment Living,” heaven can be a chance encounter with someone we may never speak to again.
Benne describes “Alma” as “a piece of poetic realism about the American dream”, but realism trumps poetry here. It’s a conventionally structured drama: two characters, one setting, the requisite amount of family conflict, a few unearthed secrets, and the shadow of menacing politics.
What distinguishes writing is its cultural specificity. A world is built on stage that the actors, Cheryl Umaña and Sabrina Fest, inhabit as if they had lived there most of their lives. (Tanya Orellana’s scenic design makes every detail correct.)
Alma, who works late into the night, sleeps on the couch without complaining so her daughter can have the room. Angel, a typical high school girl, wants more space for herself. She resents that her room has a curtain instead of a door. And she doesn’t want to explain why she keeps forgetting the rice and beans her mom lovingly prepares for her school lunch or why she’s not home when she’s supposed to be studying for the SAT.
The tropes are familiar, but there is a liveliness in the theatrical expression. Enraged by her daughter’s challenge, Alma rushes to get the dreaded “chancla”, a flip-flop sandal used to remind her daughter who’s boss. The punishment, however, seems to hurt Alma more than Angel, who immediately becomes his mother’s comforter.
The intimacy between them – the way they snuggle under the blanket from different ends of the sofa, the peace that invades them when their favorite animal show is on television – is rendered in a moving way. Under the sensitive direction of Juliette Carrillo, Alma d’Umaña and Angel de Fest unearth the lyricism of the routine quarrels of a mother and her daughter, who navigate a land of opportunities that is also a land of systemic inequalities.
There’s a hesitation in the way Benne, who is still a playwriting student at what was once known as the Yale School of Drama, takes off from this terrain of realism. A TV with a mind of its own becomes the mechanism by which the toxic rhetoric of Donald Trump’s dawning era permeates even the dream unfolding in this apartment.
Realistic games don’t need an excuse pass to fly in other stylistic modes. The stage is by nature a poetic space. But “Alma” represents a new direction for the Center Theater Group which, under the influence of Associate Artistic Director Luis Alfaro, is committed to reflecting contemporary Los Angeles in all its glorious diversity across the company’s three stages.
Alfaro explained CTG’s vision in an interview last year: “We don’t need to find this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. We need to find the one who is five pieces away from that Pulitzer.”
Champions of the forgotten and chroniclers of our current way of life, Alvarez and Benne are solid bets for a healthy drama future.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.