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STAGE REVIEW : ‘The Day You’ll Love Me’ Has Chekhovian Overtones

Times Theater Writer

Perhaps we should call “The Day You’ll Love Me” at the Taper, Too a romantic comedy. Or a human one. Certainly a Chekhovian one.

First, this play by Jose Ignacio Cabrujas is a tender and perhaps wittily unconscious sendup of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Second, it’s Los Angeles’ first exposure to the Venezuelan Cabrujas, in what we’re told is the first of his plays to be produced in English (Eduardo Machado did the lively and muscular translation). Finally, the show constitutes a welcome return to the land of full productions for the Taper, Too, which last season had been stuck in a groove of one-person shows.

“The Day You’ll Love Me” is engaging and unpretentious, a play wherein the humdrum, middle-class lives of three Caracas sisters--Maria Luisa, Elvira and Matilda--are momentarily uplifted by the unscheduled visit to their garden of the swooningly handsome pop singer Carlos Gardel.

Gardel, a real-life figure, was in a league with Rudolph Valentino: a mega-superstar on an international scale. He died in a plane crash at 45, still in the prime of his celebrity and life, and causing almost as much worldwide consternation and grief with his death as Valentino did with his.

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Cabrujas sets his piece on the eve of that death, which gives “The Day You’ll Love Me” its wistfulness and rue. Color it semi-dark.

His protagonists, after all, are three closely bonded sisters who lead fairly gray lives. Maria Luisa (Wanda De Jesus) is a 37-year-old spinster who has been dating the stodgy and humorless Pio (Miguel Sandoval) for 10 years and vainly clings to bankrupt dreams of escape with him to a Communist Never-Never Land in Stalin’s Ukraine.

Elvira (Rose Portillo) is a postal clerk who both revels in and reviles the memories of her whirlwind romance and short-lived marriage with an irresistibly reprehensible lover/husband.

As their fond, slightly foolish but irrepressible brother, Placido (Marc Tubert), describes them, they are “Elvira the abandoned” and “Maria Luisa the defector.” In other words: the past. The youngest sister, Matilda (Maritza Rivera), Placido calls “the future,” which indeed she is--a spirited, mildly shrill young woman, sporting a blond marcel , poised on the lip of life and eager to inhale it. Her destiny? No doubt as lean as that of her sisters before her.

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When in walks Gardel.

If the Chekhovian analogy is not clear by now, let’s enhance it: Elvira is this play’s Masha, Maria Luisa is the Olga and Matilda the Irina. There is little connection between brother Placido and “Three Sisters” brother Andrey (Placido is 100 times more winning), but plenty of connection between the lumpish Pio and Masha’s lost-cause husband Kulyigin (both of whom also teach for a living).

The strongest similarity, however, lies in the transformation that the suave Gardel (a dapper John Castellanos), this play’s Vershinin, effects on the idolatrous sisters.

He is their dream of passion, their window of hope, their vision of a life beyond their walled Caracas garden. Their Moscow. While the analogies with Chekhov are striking, they are merely that. Analogies. They give this funny play its pensive side, but they are far from being just carbon copies.

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Director Lillian Garrett has kept the dual aims of the piece in perfect balance, allowing us to savor Cabrujas’ skill at commingling seriousness with humor. And the actors uniformly rise to the occasion, with an outstanding couple of moments provided by Sandoval’s Pio, a pathetic man who takes on tragic stature in his final scene.

It is Portillo, however, who delivers the most consistently rich portrayal. Her Elvira is at once sensual and sad, amusing and alienated, vulnerable and unvanquished. This is an understated actress who commands the stage, in plenary possession of her talent.

Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio have provided an inviting patio set (beautifully lit by Liz Stillwell) with a pointilliste sky in the background dotted with stars. But an equally major contribution is made by Susan Denison Geller, whose costumes are defined by an unusual period elegance that positions these young women at the heart of their social rank and gentility. Such deftness is as true of the play as the production. A fine piece of work all around.


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