Reunion goes haywire in ‘Alexandros’

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Kevin Symons, left, Katharine Luckinbill and Chaz Mena star in the Laguna Playhouse presentation of "Alexandros."
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Kevin Symons, left, Katharine Luckinbill and Chaz Mena star in the Laguna Playhouse presentation of “Alexandros.”
(Ed Krieger, xx)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

If for no other reason, family reunions exist to give writers ample material for their stories of dinner-table dysfunctionality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Other people’s domestic traumas have yielded some of theater’s finest masterpieces.

Unfortunately, Melinda Lopez’s “Alexandros” isn’t one of them. This ensemble piece, having its world premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, is a family-reunion comedy that uses ethnic spice to enliven its reheated premise. A Cuban family living in Miami reunites to celebrate the 75th birthday of its matriarch (Maria Cellario). The party brings three generations together under one tempestuous (and pink-tiled) roof.

This occasionally funny play adheres to the family-reunion axiom that buried secrets must be revealed at the most awkward possible moments. The eldest daughter, Maritza (Saundra Santiago), is a vivacious society lady who doesn’t want her family to know about her impending divorce from her wealthy husband. Her brother, Tio (Chaz Mena), is a cruise ship performer who prefers to keep his relationship with the family gardener (Kevin Symons) buried deep in the closet.

Emotional catharsis arrives courtesy of two unlikely interlopers. The old lady’s lap dog, Alexandros (played by a stuffed animal), experiences a mysterious fate that throws the entire household into chaos. Meanwhile, the granddaughter, Marty, accidentally discovers her uncle’s clandestine liaison and must do everything to keep herself from spilling the secret. She’s played by Katharine Luckinbill, who is best known as the granddaughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Perhaps appropriately, much of “Alexandros” plays like a 1950s sitcom. The characters are often pulling their faces into exaggerated expressions and constantly running around the set like a bunch of lunatics. The dialogue seems timed to match an imaginary laugh track. And the obligatory family-values lessons of the third act are dutifully reinforced.

The actual setting of the play is August 1974, on the eve of President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The historical backdrop provides some convenient story parallels -- the toppling of authority, the outing of secrets and the beginning of a new era. It’s a rather grandiose metaphor for such a modest play, but it does have the benefit of allowing the production team to indulge in garish ‘70s fashion, including bell-bottoms, big-collared shirts and fluorescent hot pants.

“Alexandros” contains some marvelously off-kilter scenes, most of them involving the flamboyant Tio. In one moment of stress, he performs an outrageously hammy rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” on the family piano. Later, after much has been revealed, he childishly buries his face in a pillow for what seems like an eternity. Mena’s wild but controlled performance turns a cliched role into something verging on experimental art.

The female cast members aren’t nearly as successful with their parts, though that’s mostly the fault of the playwright, who has created a gallery of stock Latinas. The grandmother is an overbearing matron obsessed with fortune telling, while her daughter is a hot-tempered firecracker who is always breaking out into cha-cha-cha dance moves. But worst of all is the granddaughter, a fully Americanized teenager who is predictably hostile to her ethnic relatives but then comes to embrace the value of her cultural heritage.

Directed by David Ellenstein, “Alexandros” is pitched as a screwball comedy, but the production’s aim is slightly askew. The play teeters indecisively between outright frivolity and moments of psychological gravitas. “He was a lot of sad with his happy,” says one character, and that line sums up the play’s rather unbalanced tone of tragicomedy.

Lopez, whose “Sonia Flew” premiered last season at Laguna, knows how to juggle characters and write fast-paced scenes. But no amount of cleverness, or Latin exoticism for that matter, can conceal that she’s essentially serving up leftovers.