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Is there comedy in death? Playwright José Rivera on the dark twists of 'Nikki Corona'

Is there comedy in death? Playwright José Rivera on the dark twists of 'Nikki Corona'
“When I want to explore very personal themes, then I’ll turn to theater,” says Jose Rivera, whose screenplay for "The Motorcycle Diaries" earned him an Oscar nomination. His play "The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona" premieres at the Geffen Playhouse. (Lela Edgar)

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Ask theater director Jo Bonney to describe playwright José Rivera’s new work — “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona,” a world premiere that begins previews Tuesday at the Geffen Playhouse — and Bonney hesitates.

Is it comedy?

“Here’s the tricky thing,” Bonney says. “It’s about death, but that sounds so morbid. It’s more about who we are, how we face our final moment.”

Rivera’s title character is a bereaved young woman who asks a dying man to deliver a message to her twin sister on “the other side.” What Nikki’s secrets are, and why they can’t be translated, is for Rivera and Bonney to know and audiences to find out.

“It has all the elements of José’s writing that I love,” says Bonney, who also directed Rivera’s “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” in 2001 and “The Adoration of the Old Woman” in 2002. “This quick, dark humor mixed with this incredible lyricism. He can have this extraordinary monologue that’s just sheer poetry and then break it with some wonderfully cynical line or dark twist. When I read it, I thought: There it is again, that’s what I respond to.”

Rivera’s stage directions in this script are cinematic, which makes sense for someone who also writes TV shows and screenplays, the best known of which is the Che Guevara biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. He lost to Alexander Payne for “Sideways,” but Rivera says he didn’t mind. The nomination for a foreign-language film still felt like a wonderful fluke. (“Really?” he recalls thinking. “It’s in Spanish?”)

His director, who speaks with a touch of an accent from her native Australia, has a resume that is more daunting still. For nearly 30 years, she has traveled the country directing new plays by playwrights including Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Neil LaBute, Anna Deavere Smith and Eric Bogosian (to whom she happens to be married).

Even with all this experience, Bonney says, some of the “Nikki Corona” stage directions took her aback.

“I had to look at them and go, ‘OK, I’m on a stage,’ ” she says. “ ‘I do not have special effects. This is not Broadway “Harry Potter.” ’ So how can you be most imaginative? I use projections because it’s a way of providing imagery, because of the scope of what José’s talking about. There are other moments that are impossible to do onstage, but I can help the audience picture them.”

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Rivera’s artistic vision may be cinematic, but it was the theater bug that infected him first. He moved with his parents from Puerto Rico to New York when he was 5, though they technically weren’t immigrants — Puerto Rico had recently become a U.S. commonwealth — but that didn’t make it easy for Mom and Dad to learn English, find work and raise six kids.

Rivera went to public school on Long Island, where he learned Ibsen, Shakespeare and Molière. He cites two events as helping him to find his own voice: He read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and he saw Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, theater can do something else,’ ” he says. “‘It can do more than what I learn reading Eugene O’Neill or Lillian Hellman, those classic American plays, those kitchen-sink dramas.“ His first full-length play, the loosely autobiographical drama “The House of Ramon Iglesia,” established him in New York theater in the early 1980s.

Soon afterward, he crossed the country to Hollywood with an idea for a TV pilot. It wasn’t a choice he necessarily wanted to advertise to his theater friends. He remembers with a laugh an issue of the Dramatists Guild of America’s newsletter in which the “Ten Commandments for Playwrights” included “thou shall not commit television.”

Now, he says, the business has changed radically with the advent of new platforms.

“It’s not just a handful of networks,” he says. “It’s a whole world of people interested in telling stories. It feels like writers, at least in television, have been released from their confines. I’ve seen more and more writers shift from TV to theater, back and forth, and keep their chops up in one medium and work in another.”

Rivera keeps an eye on these developments from New York, where he moved seven years ago after having lived in L.A. since the 1980s. “I want to note the irony that I lived in L.A. for 20 years and never got a play produced at the Geffen.”

He did get plays produced at the Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse, among others. But the truth is, Rivera was writing for multiple platforms before it was cool. He has a pretty straightforward system.

“When I want to explore very personal themes, then I’ll turn to theater,” he says. “For film, I’m more mercenary, and I’ll work for anybody. People come at me with ideas for TV and film. I’ve learned so much about history and literature. And I have to say I’ve learned to really love screenwriting. I feel more free in film than I ever have. I feel like I know the tools of filmmaking more, and how to incorporate them in my writing.”

Hence, perhaps, those cinematic stage directions? But no, Rivera says. He never worries about practical challenges while he’s writing.

“Before production begins, your entire focus is the play itself,” he says. “You want to make sure it’s airtight and logical. You want to make sure that the images all work together well, and that every character has an arc. And you never know, until you get into rehearsal, what the physical or logistical or emotional challenges are going to be. Actors will have very specific questions about the flow of scenes. I have to be ready to justify why things happen the way they do.”

Though he has more than two dozens titles to his credit, Rivera says, each new project is a discovery.

“The writing of every new play is like I’ve never written a play before. And the production of every new play feels like I’ve never been in a rehearsal before. It’s always fresh,” he says, adding dryly, “in an annoying way.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles

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When: Begins previews Tuesday, opens Sept. 12, ends Oct. 7; performances 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $30-$120 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org.

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