Jesse J. Perez and Zilah Mendoza in "El Borracho." Photo by Jim Cox
El Borracho – the drunk – is one of the images on a loteria card played in a kind of Mexican bingo. He’s on his feet, barely, and waving around a bottle of tequila. A good-time, party character, right?
Wrong, as anyone haunted by a loved one’s alcoholism will tell you.
That’s what makes the Old Globe’s production in the round of Tony Meneses’ “El Borracho” so engrossing, yet so uneasy to watch at times. Raul (Jesse J. Perez) is deteriorating and dying after a lifetime of unchecked alcoholism and he’s doing so in the home of his ex-wife Alma (Zilah Mendoza) where any happy memories are drenched in booze and despair. The third figure in the drama is son David (Matthew Martinez), who is torn between wanting to still love his father and wanting to retreat to his own life away from the claustrophobic one-bedroom apartment. Obligation is at war with conscience, revulsion at war with duty, disillusionment at war with love. On top of that, David has a secret, one he fears to share with his father, though he knows he must. Time is short.
Edward Torres knows how to maximize the Globe’s intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre well, having previously directed both “Water By the Spoonful” and “Native Gardens” here. “El Borracho’s” space is a dark little world into which the audience is immersed. The modest apartment (kitchen, living room with sleeper sofa, dining area) feels inescapable for all members of the family. The set by David Israel Reynoso is surrounded by liquor bottles. Lots of them. I haven’t seen so many since I agonized through the film “Leaving Las Vegas” with Nic Cage. That discomfort returned, more viscerally, in the environment of live theater.
There are a few humorous moments in “El Borracho,” and the opening-night audience responded to them with more laughter than I could muster. I’ve never found drunkenness funny. Even Raul’s costumed, guitar-playing performance near the end of the play left me cold, its dramatic intentions notwithstanding.
As balls out as Perez’s performance is as Raul, I was most affected by Mendoza’s quieter turn as Alma. While the script emphasizes son David’s internal complications and relationship to his disintegrating father, it’s really Alma, living under the same roof with Raul and having a much longer history with him in every way, who’s most deeply suffering regret, resentment, fear and more. Yet Mendoza never overplays her hand. She is the Other that is subject to so many alcoholism-racked families’ distress and misery.
Alma’s pet birds in a cage is a too-obvious metaphorical device. She’s trapped enough as it is.
“El Borracho” strives to convey tenderness, elusive as it is when anger is so understandably predominant and surrender so tempting. That is the alcoholic home.
They are everywhere.
“El Borracho” runs through March 20 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.