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He’s Hit the ‘Panic’ Button

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Guillermo Reyes’ “Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown,” now at Highways, bitterly satirizes the efforts of gay Latino immigrants to assimilate into a hostile status quo. It was first seen in 1994 at the Celebration Theater, in a celebrated one-man production starring the pyrotechnical Felix A. Pire in a crackling staging by Joseph Megel.

The current offering, which has been retooled as a two-man show featuring Gil Ferrales and Ron Garcia, is bafflingly bad, a pale facsimile of the original that leaves one pondering not only what went wrong, but the evanescence of the theatrical experience in general.

What makes a hit fade into a flop? In this case, lackluster performances and Ken McFarlane’s sluggish direction. Another key problem, however, is Reyes’ material, which has the kind of cutting-edge topicality that can quickly seem shopworn. Of-the-moment references to riots and earthquakes, once so apropos, are musty here, and Reyes’ efforts to update the proceedings are token at best. A character’s catty reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton as a foe of minimum-wage workers is particularly confusing, while the inclusion of two new sketches in an already overlong evening is ill-judged.

However, Reyes’ surreally ironic humor maintains some bite amid the prevailing turgidity. Unfortunately, even Reyes’ most vivid characterizations--a wide-eyed young illegal who encounters every obstacle with indefatigable verve, a dying flamenco drag performer who prepares for her last dance--cannot survive the overall klunkiness.

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In the original show, a dancing Pire remained on stage between monologues, performing his prop and costume changes in full view of the audience--an effective device that kept the action flowing. But why, in a two-person play, does McFarlane elect to have his actors do likewise, when one performer could easily be getting ready for the next segment while the other is on stage? Ah, but that would be expediting matters. So instead, we see both Ferrales and Garcia zipping, unzipping, stripping and tripping to throbbing salsa music for interminable intervals between scenes. It’s a blunder typical of this troubled production.

Stranded in the vacuum of the uninspired staging, Ferrales tends to overact, often mistaking long pauses for emotion. A comical character with an endearingly goofy quality, Garcia fares somewhat better with his over-the-top, mile-a-minute delivery. Sometimes, we strain to understand him, but at least he provides the illusion of momentum in an otherwise stultifying evening.

BE THERE

“Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown,” Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thursdays through Sundays, 8:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 17. (Dark tonight and Friday.) $15. (310) 315-1459.


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