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Review: José Rivera's 'The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona' stumbles on the stairway to heaven

Review: José Rivera's 'The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona' stumbles on the stairway to heaven
Ricardo Chavira and Onahoua Rodriguez star in the world premiere of José Rivera’s "The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona" at the Geffen Playhouse. (Darrett Sanders)

José Rivera’s “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona” earns points for imaginative audacity. A good many more, unfortunately, are deducted for clumsy execution.

The playwright (“Marisol,” “References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot”) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) has long enjoyed blending the real with the surreal. But in his new comedy, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in a world premiere production directed by Jo Bonney, the flight of fantasy never reaches cruising altitude.

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The play deals with death, grief and the afterlife. But Rivera can’t seem to decide whose story he’s telling. As a consequence, there isn’t enough emotional fuel for the journey. It’s not simply that the adventure is cockamamie. It’s that the play doesn’t give us enough incentive to care about its careening twists and counterintuitive turns.

In the opening scene, Abril leaves a voicemail message on her sister’s phone before jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Nikki, Abril’s twin sister (Onahoua Rodriguez plays both characters), next appears at the Brooklyn office of A Better Orpheus, a service that connects grief-stricken loved ones with dying patients who are willing to deliver messages once they reach the hereafter.

Nikki, who teaches classics and knows all about Orpheus’ botched mission to the underworld, is understandably dubious. But her guilt about not answering her sister’s final phone call propels her to meet a terminally ill man that Maren (Cate Scott Campbell), the twitchy proprietor of this occult operation, has found for her.

The hospital room meeting between Orlando (Ricardo Chavira) and Nikki doesn’t go exactly as planned. Orlando is younger and better looking than Nikki expected. She rebuffs his smooth-talking advances, but she is moved by his plight. While pondering whether to go through with the arrangement, her heart begins to stir.

By the time intermission arrives, it seems reasonable to assume that the play belongs to its title character. Rodriguez brings out the luster in Nikki’s appealing melancholy. The first half has some misbegotten moments, including a ranting scene between Orlando and his imperious sister, Noelle (Zilah Mendoza), that fills in some blanks in Orlando’s background. But it’s Nikki’s brooding sensitivity that captures our imagination.

For some reason, Rivera ditches Nikki and makes the second act all about Orlando’s corny Dante-esque escapades in the land of the dead. He is guided by Lisandra (Campbell), a cartoon Southerner who lived like a recluse in a cabin writing anti-government screeds before a can of spoiled peaches did her in (in the off-chance you were wondering).

But Orlando doesn’t seem particularly committed to delivering Nikki’s message to Abril, and the dopey encounters he has with deceased relatives don’t exactly deepen our interest in his spiritual path. (Why would they? We hardly know the dude.)

Cate Scott Campbell, left, Ricardo Chavira and Zilah Mendoza star in the world premiere of José Rivera's "The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona" at the Geffen Playhouse.
Cate Scott Campbell, left, Ricardo Chavira and Zilah Mendoza star in the world premiere of José Rivera's "The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona" at the Geffen Playhouse. (Darrett Sanders)

Rivera has a knack for literalizing flamboyant metaphors (such as a bathtub of tears), but his quirky tone strains for effect. The actors aren’t able to ballast the high jinks with credible feeling. Chavira is a charismatic presence, but there’s nothing he can do to redeem the second act, which does indeed feel like an eternity.

Bonney has a superb track record with new plays, but her production is a misfire.

Hana S. Kim’s projections lend some kick to Myung Hee Choo’s murky sets, but the play is as boring to look at as it is grating to listen to.

The supporting cast members, which include Juan Francisco Villa in a number of underdeveloped roles, overplay their hands. Mendoza raises her volume when she wants to show conviction, but none of her characters has any. Campbell rampages for laughs as Maren and Lisandra but earns only a squint from me.

There’s a seed of something special in the farfetched concept of “Nikki Corona,” and Rodriguez and Chavira do what they can with the half-baked material. But Rivera should go back to the drawing board.

It’s good to see the Geffen taking risks on new work. But this play needs a workshop, not the scrutiny of a paying public.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 7

Price: $30 to $120 (subject to change)

Info: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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