Jose Rivera is an extremely talented playwright, a fact not entirely obvious from his last Los Angeles production, “Each Day Dies With Sleep,” a 1990 play that reached for magical realism but achieved only exaggeration.
Rivera’s gifts are much more in evidence in his first full-length play, “The House of Ramon Iglesia,” now at the Nosotros Theatre in Hollywood. Although a bit repetitive, it is the work of a young playwright with an authentic and vibrant voice. Rivera brings a tough honesty to this family drama about loyalty, identity and cultural roots.
“Ramon Iglesia” (which was first produced in 1983 and subsequently shown on American Playhouse) centers on Javier (Oscar Arguello), a college graduate who returns to his parents’ modest Long Island home, under protest. He is ashamed of his janitor father (warmly played by Richard Leos), and his mother (Eve Rivera), who still avoids English after 19 years in the United States. “Whenever I see a Puerto Rican stumbling around drunk, I think of Dad,” he admits to one of his brothers.
Javier is a proper child of the ‘80s, a Georgetown University graduate who goes to job interviews looking like an attorney, in a good wool suit, carrying a briefcase. He is in the painful process of shedding skins, which includes the dumping of his devoted girlfriend Caroline (Rachel Malkenhorst), who is white but just a bit too Long Island. “You think you can find someone better than me?” she asks, furious. Javier answers, his chubby baby face set in stone: “That’s just the problem, I do.”
But “Ramon Iglesias” is not only about a heartless son, ruthlessly assimilating. Rivera gives Javier a full-blooded and complicated ambivalence, which Arguello plays with fine restraint. The family is torn by its different views on assimilation, and each of those views is given dignity and heft. With the exception of the racist Italian landlord (Nicholas Coudsy), every character is presented in full dimension.
The parents want nothing more than to return to Puerto Rico, which Javier argues would be an act of total failure in American terms. A macho brother, Julio (Antonio Del Sol), plans to escape into a stellar career with the Marines (in an updating of the play to 1989, Julio is faced with the scary possibility of a tour of Kuwait).
The third son, Charlie, is played by Arturo Ponce as a careful and watchful presence in the tumultuous household. He likes to be called Carlos and wants to return to Puerto Rico with his parents. Javier keeps trying to get him Americanized, giving him books like “The Decline of the West” without necessarily seeing the irony in that.
Director Dell Yount provides a coherent reading of a play that is sometimes given to excess, such as when the mother continually moans over a dead baby she lost long ago. But mostly “Ramon Iglesia” eschews sentiment to deal in hard truths about families, no matter how brutal some of the truths might be.
* “The House of Ramon Iglesia,” Nosotros Theatre, 1314 N. Wilton Place, Hollywood, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends April 2. $10. (213) 465-4167. Running time: 2 hours.