'Our Lady of the Tortilla' at Bilingual Foundation; 'Holiday Dinner' at Groundlings; 'Public' at Kaliyuga; 'Boom Boom Room' at Attic

Luis Santeiro's "Our Lady of the Tortilla" at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts initially appears to be nothing like the more serious contemporary Latino-American plays, such as "Roosters" or "The Promise," that Los Angeles has seen recently.

Set in a home in East Los Angeles, "Tortilla" goes for the jokes--and finds many of them. The style is lightly comic, even satirical--the primary targets being devout spinsters and their families who are ashamed of them, with subsidiary skewerings of spurned women and greedy sons.

The play doesn't quite develop according to form, however. Santeiro--like the writers of those other plays--indulged in his own brand of "magical realism." Dolores (Alma Leonor Beltran) sees a vision of the Virgin Mary in one of the 1,000 tortillas she's making for a party. At first the subsequent commotion threatens to tear the family apart. But by play's end, Dolores' vision is credited with miracles ranging from couples' engagements to an unseasonal snowfall in East Los Angeles.

The miracle talk remains light-hearted. There isn't a whiff of pretension about this play. In fact, Santeiro winks at his own depiction of these miracles. But he also makes it clear that these people could use a miracle or two. What's the harm if they get what they need?

It's not a tough-minded comedy, but it is amusing. Margarita Galban's casts alternate, as do the languages they speak (English and Spanish), but the cast I saw Sunday kept the laughs coming at a fairly fast clip.

Beltran is doleful but lovable as Dolores. She has some well-calibrated exchanges with Margarita Cordova as her more worldly and exasperated sister, and with Al Septien, who manages to steer his role of the embarrassed nephew away from being a prig--even though his thesis is on "Leave It to Beaver" and he's trying to impress a Southern belle (Jenette Goldstein). Gus Ruelas plays his gray sheep of a brother with a note of incipient desperation.

Estela Scarlata's set combines garish religious art with middle-class comforts, and the uncredited costumes add a few good chuckles.

At 421 N. Ave. 19, Lincoln Heights, in English on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., in Spanish on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through April 2. Tickets: $12; (213) 225-4044. 'Holiday Dinner' The family reunion must be the most familiar subject in the American theater. Every year brings a half-dozen new plays about bickering family members who finally reach some accord at a reunion. Usually the oldest member of the family has just died or is dying, prompting all the subsequent truth-telling.

"Holiday Dinner," a script by three Groundlings at the Groundlings Theatre, is more of the same.

This one was expanded from a Groundlings sketch, so it has a broader comic edge than many of its fellow family reunion plays. Which is not to say that it's funnier--it simply tries harder for its laughs. It gets a fair share of them, but it's not much funnier in two acts than it would be as a sketch. Nor is it much deeper.

Mindy Sterling, Deanna Oliver, and Nancy Dye wrote "Holiday Dinner" and also appear in it as a single mom (Sterling), her restless teen-age daughter (Dye), and the prim mom's flamboyant sister (Oliver). The two sisters can't stand each other. Yet when a simple misunderstanding over a bizarre event in the past (here's where the writers really strain for laughs) is cleared up, their enmity dissolves. Who needs therapy?

Jeanette Miller has a few choice moments as the sisters' mother, including one scene on videotape, and Scott Hartman gets maximum humor out of a minimal guy--the boyfriend of the teen-age daughter. Director Jonathan Stark, the gifted cast, and Michael Deal's and Deborah Slate's suburban design can't be faulted.

The only problem is the lack of a fresh play.

At 7307 Melrose Ave., Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $12.50; (213) 934-9700.

'The Public' "The Public," by Federico Garcia Lorca, was "long considered unproducible because of its complexity and its controversial subject matter," according to a press release for the Kaliyuga Arts production of the 1930 play at the Richmond Shepard.

The play is as complex--and opaque--as ever. It's a densely poetic, dreamlike meditation about a theatrical director who stages an unusual version of "Romeo and Juliet." The fourth of six scenes is missing, but this hardly simplifies the play; it's probably muddier now than it would be if it were intact.

The "controversial subject matter," however, is no longer controversial. Presumably this was a reference to the play's depiction of homoerotic feelings--a subject that appears in dozens of plays in the small theaters of Los Angeles every year.

So the play's surreal style remains virtually impenetrable, while the shock value of its once-scandalous subject has faded. This is a recipe for a challenging theatrical experience that no longer is worth the challenge.

John Sowle's staging and design create a couple of striking images and evince much attention to detail, but the details add up to a big blur.

At 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through April 1. Tickets: $12.50; (213) 466-1767. 'The Boom Boom Room' It's interesting to see Mitch Beer's Attic Theatre revival of David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room" in the wake of the Los Angeles premiere of Rabe's "Hurlyburly." Both plays do go on and on, but both also engage us via the scrappy, funny vernacular their characters speak. Both plays feature go-go dancers.

But while "Hurlyburly" was thoroughly male, with the dancer a subsidiary character, the earlier "Boom Boom Room" focused almost exclusively on the descent of the somewhat dim Chrissy. Rabe's perspective is despairing but compassionate.

This production has a solidly proletarian Chrissy in Cynthia Gibb, and the rest of the cast isn't bad. But the decision to open the play with almost all of the final scene--which is then repeated at the end--torpedoes what little suspense exists in the play about Chrissy's fate. This play doesn't need a flashback, nor did Rabe write one in his 1973 script or in his 1986 rewrite.

At 6562 Santa Monica Blvd., Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m., through April 7. Tickets: $10-$15; (213) 666-1427.

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