Let’s just say hello to the elephant in the room, shall we? I’m about to write a review about going to the theater in New York, while being extremely unsure that it’s responsible to be going to the theater in New York. On the bright side, today’s review only talks about houses that seat fewer than 1,000 people, so they’re not technically “large” gathering sites. But if you have decided to spend your plague-time in retiring to the country to write sonnets — I certainly bow to your decision.
If you are headed out, though, Ethan Lipton’s musical Tumacho, which comes to the Connelly Theater after having been a hit of the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks Festival, is a delightful little piece of nonsense that might make you forget your troubles. It’s an old-timey Western-horror-melodrama, complete with a feller on piano (Matthew Dean Marsh) playing scaredy-cat trills during the dramatic moments, and puppet-maker and prop master Raphael Mishler contributing knitted saguaro cacti that can sing. The titular Tumacho is a demon, capable of possessing unsuspecting souls, who threatens “a one-horse town where the horse broke down.” It’s a tale of a community that must rally its drunks and bad guys and stuffed shirts to defeat him. It’s also a paper place mat: a convenient surface for silly doodles.
So director Leigh Silverman casts the best silly doodlers around. The pompous Mayor Evans is John Ellison Conlee, who never misses an opportunity to do an imitation (his “muted jazz trumpet” vies with his “desert bird squawk” for best noise); the blackhearted, black-hat villain Bill is Andrew Garman, who is just obviously the sweetest guy beneath his snarl; and the foolish cook Chappie is Andy Grotelueschen, master of the under-the-breath wisecrack and the “I’m about to giggle” lip quiver. The cast also includes Phillipa Soo twirling a six-shooter and Chinaza Uche playing two characters, both oozing gunslinger charm.
If anything, there’s an abundance of these riches: The cast messing around is funnier than the script, so time spent on the story’s mechanics can actually feel wasted. (Lipton’s songs, on the other hand, are always worth it.) But every time the tale gets a bit too shaggy, Gibson Frazier rides to the rescue. He plays Doc Alonzo, who has no personality traits worth mentioning and basically exists to deliver information dumps. Yet Frazier — always a master portraitist of slightly dim authority — is crucial to the melodrama. In every expository moment (he has many), his Dudley Do-Right tenor rings out in the tiny theater, confident and wrongheaded and absolutely ridiculous. Don’t worry, his voice seems to say, I’ll save us! It’s supposed to be absurd, but it’s still the sound I needed to hear.
In 72 Miles to Go …, Hilary Bettis’s drama about the cruelty of American border policy, there’s no reassurance at all. There are keenly effective parts, though, like the way it pays long and careful attention to people, or the warmth of the lead actor, longtime theater treasure Triney Sandoval. Sandoval plays Billy, an Arizona pastor whose wife has been deported and whose children, Eva (Jacqueline Guillén) and Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), and adult undocumented stepson Christian (Bobby Moreno) are struggling without her. Yet Jo Bonney’s production doesn’t feel completely settled into itself, and some of the other performers work very broadly — Aaron in ninth grade acts like a boy half his age, and Moreno, usually a confident performer, overdoes it.
Bettis draws out her story over eight years, as the family tries to wait out the ten-year penalty for their mother’s latest attempt to cross without papers. Bettis writes sympathetically and with an ear for strain, particularly the constant tension in people who can’t afford a single busted taillight, a single speeding ticket. It’s the vise of “law” on every side that’s crushing them — the big laws that want their family divided, the small ones that seem to exist just to trip them up.
The timeline is necessary for the story Bettis is telling: She isn’t talking about short-horizon changes; she’s talking about long-term, permanent damage. Over the course of their time onstage, all four visible family members (and the mother, on the phone) twist and bend out of their true shape, like trees trying to grow into a wind. One of the production’s best touches is a silent one — set designer Rachel Hauck’s broad, beautiful sky, which seems caught perpetually in sunset. All that stillness and radiance and space makes the border and its laws seem ridiculous. Why shouldn’t their mother be on this side rather than that? There’s plenty of room.
But the timeline is also difficult to execute gracefully: In an intermissionless, evening-length show, eight years of eventful life means we’re watching the highlight reel, dropped into highly emotional moments and then whisked out of them, over and over and over. Bettis can write encounters with real power — there’s an unexplained prom tragedy that gives Sandoval and Guillén a strong scene, for instance — but the show’s rhythms don’t rise and fall, they just march doggedly forward. This episodic structure might shine in another production — heck, it might shine in Bonney’s version, just later in the run, when the components have had a chance to jell. When I saw it on the weekend, though, it felt as though 72 Miles still needed to go … a little farther.
Tumacho is at the Connelly Theatre through March 21.
72 Miles to Go … is at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through May 3.