A landlord-tenant dispute takes on tragic proportions in T3 premiere
In the opening moment of "The LaVidas’s Landlord," a ponytailed high school writing teacher named Al Mann (Greg Jackson) writes — and reads aloud — a note to his new tenant, Carlos LaVida (Sergio Antonio Garcia). Since Al’s job is communication, you wonder why he has chosen such writerly, arch prose with a man barely fluent in English. The words are fussed over and prim, like an 18th century epistolary novel.
After a few minutes, you realize that not only is that intentional but it will not end. Like "Love Letters," "LaVidas" is that rarity: an epistolary play.
Correspondence can make for dubious dramatic action. While plays depend on dialogue, they also rely a lot of interaction, and at no point do the actors ever deal directly with each other; instead, they share missives, their tones and expressions directed to the audience. (It’s set in 1990, before the digital age, so they don’t even chat, text or e-mail each other.)
Naming the main characters Al Mann ("a man") and Carlos LaVida (Spanish for "life") is akin to calling your protagonist named John Q. Public — whatever point you’re trying to make, you’re trying too hard. And there are too many odd coincidences central to the plot.
But while this world premiere production from playwright Lawrence Weinstein is far from perfect, it’s ultimately an enjoyable bit of theater. Weinstein has cleverly drawn Al as one of those unpleasant "liberal guilt" pseudo-intellectuals who become insufferable. He’s long-winded and self-important, the kind of touchy-feely schmuck who writes condescending poems about the glory of immigration ("whether high water or hell come…. I say ‘welcome’") and mails them to Carlos. You just know he tries to impress all his equally self-righteous friends with tales of the noble refugee he deigned to rent a house to.
But the play also tracks how close to the surface a mean streak can be. Al quickly goes from saying "political victim" to "wetback," and his unwillingness to admit he’s really a slumlord — his blind conceitedness — is eventually dooming. The play especially picks up steam in Act 2, when Al is forced to deal with Carlos’ attorney (Garcia again), whose uses of legalese swallows up Al’s sanctimonious verse.
Despite some fumbled lines on opening night (and the distracting sound of moving furniture overhead), director Bruce R. Coleman pulls evocative performances from Jackson and Garcia — the latter particularly effective as the attorney. They find the tragedy inside everyday events.
Theatre Three, 2900 Routh St. Through March 30. Fridaysâ€“Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. $20â€“$30. 214-871-3300.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 21, 2008.