All Hanan Mashalani wants is to be a pop star, a Lebanese-American idol. But in Enrique Urueta’s sexually charged, label-busting comedy, the Lebanese part is what Hanan must give up for stardom. She must, as the title goes, “learn to be Latina.”
Wide-eyed, stammering and TMI-ing Hanan (Tamara Dhia) becomes a puppet in the hands of record company beyotch Mary O’Malley (Faeren Adams), who also wears a sock puppet on her hand named Calcetina that “speaks” fluent and scolding Spanish. Mary’s assisted by the secretive but solicitous trio of Bill, Will and Jill (Dangerfield G. Moore, Steve Smith and Amanda Cooley Davis), whose own agendas range from the voyeuristic to the masturbatory. This is not your father’s record label.
Despite her outrage at being linked to terrorism because she’s of Lebanese descent (this is done with some hilarious physical comedy and equally un-P.C. series of power point slides), Hanan goes along with overbearing Mary’s plan to make her over as a Latina diva in the sizzling manner of Shakira. Hanan’s at-first-reluctant transformation is complicated by a bubbling sexual attraction to Blanche (Olivia Espinosa), who is referred to by all at the wacky record label as “Office Bitch.” She’s nothing of the kind, of course. She’s Lebanese lesbian Hanan’s -- and the play’s -- conscience.
Learn to be Latina works hard at being outrageous in its smashing of ethnic, racial and sexual sensitivities. Like so many of those well-intentioned but excessive skits familiar to viewers of latter-day “Saturday Night Live” episodes, Learn to be Latina doesn’t know when to let its cast, or its audience, catch a breath. Little wonder that the cleverest sequence in the show is its opening, with the robotically choreographed Bill, Will and Jill interviewing Hanan when she first arrives at her appointment with destiny. The locomotive, or merely loco, comedy comes close to slipping the track many times afterward.
While much of the relentless raunch is entertaining, it’s also wearying. The hand puppet, an obvious metaphor to begin with, begins to annoy. One wants to sock the talking sock.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat