Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SWEETHEART DEAL (Los Angeles Theatre Center)

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by Dale Reynolds on May 20, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

SWEETHEART DEAL IS A MISSED ROMANCE

There’s been scant theater documenting the plight of the Latino farm workers and their fight for economic and racial equality, especially in California. Arts advocate and playwright Diane Rodriguez has lived some of that fight, which is reflected in the best parts of her new play, The Sweetheart Deal. Unfortunately, the balance of the long one-act, currently at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, lacks an emotional center from which the audience might derive interest and comfort.

Will (Geoff Rivas) and Mari (Ruth Livier) have brought their journalistic skills to a small bi-weekly voice of the campesinos—El Malcriado—helping editor Chon (Valente Rodriguez) and union organizer Lettie (Linda Lopez) with printing and budgets. The editors desperately want Mari’s rival union-organizing brother, Mac (David DeSantos) to, in essence, spy for them. The playwright, who also directs, wants us to know about and understand what the late-sixties and early-seventies were like for the workers, documented and un- alike. Into the play she inserts four “actos”—Commedia dell’Arte-inspired sketches influenced by those she participated in while working in Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Compasino, up and down Central California, mostly for the Mexican immigrant workers.

Essentially semi-improvised agit-prop, the skits illustrate the on-going conflicts between growers and workers—amusing, broadly-sketched ideas using buffoonery as a way of showing what the campesinos had to put up with day in and day out. The “actos” illustrate what the paper is reporting on; the cast, which includes DeSantos, Rivas, and Rodriguez, pitch in on presenting them. The ensemble is uneven—strong, effective actors, but all too often left to their own devises.

There are touches, especially in the “actos,” which are highly entertaining, but the storyline itself is fractured; instead of allowing us more insight into the volunteers’ reasons for being there, it’s all too facile, with the husband and, especially, the wife in our sights but not nearly enough in our senses. The skits are, indeed, a highlight of the world premiere, but point up for us what doesn’t work. This is an important topic for Westerners to more fully understand—the exploitation of peasant workers by wealthy agriculturalists—and Rodriguez’s writing goes some distance in explaining it to us.

What she needs to work on now are characters that more fully represent the emotional heart of the men and women being exploited and their supporters in the unions and at the bi-weekly. In addition, the entertaining but stilted evening would have benefited from a different director who has an outside eye to guide the events. Rodriguez’s seldom effective direction was incapable of finding the heart in her own material.

Efren Delgadillo’s set of packing crates that surround the action in a three-quarter backing are clever, doubling as desks, food storage, etc., but it’s visually dull. Yee Eun Nam’s projections illustrate the strikes—which eventually went national as The Great Grape Boycott—and the leaders: Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta.

It is a disappointing evening, much to be regretted, but the playwright is perhaps half-way there, so it deserves a re-working and re-mounting. Whether or not a history belongs to us, we need to know about them, and they’re easily learned in this kind of venue.

photos by Grettel Cortes Photography

The Sweetheart Deal
Los Angeles Theatre Center/Tom Bradley Theatre
514 S. Spring St, downtown Los Angeles
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on June 4, 2017
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit LATC

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank C May 21, 2017 at 12:18 pm

I saw this play on opening night; the reviewer nailed what went missing. What I noticed is that important action takes place off stage. The characters repeatedly enter describing incidences that we should experience with them onstage. (I mean this happens for the first half of the play.) This practice renders the characters as talkie narrators. Too bad, because the story elements have tons of potential.

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Amorosa T. May 23, 2017 at 1:16 pm

I totally agree, Frank. The problem with Sweetheart Deal, despite clever staging and props, is the story itself. It felt like the author was avoiding the real story, and was barely capable of referencing it offstage. It felt like complete fluff at a time when the author could have given us fire. What a lack of courage. What a waste.

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