As far as I’m aware, a performance of Toros is the only place in New York where you can currently see a 63-year-old play a dying female golden retriever. At Second Stage’s uptown house on 76th Street, in the corner of a stage made up to look like a suburban garage in Madrid, you’ll see Frank Wood lying in the corner of a dog bed in ragged brown clothes, slumbering, panting, and sometimes crawling over to the human characters for a belly rub. It’s a remarkably convincing canine performance, though it’s crucially not at the center of the show — this isn’t Sylvia. Those humans, a trio of wealthy, aimless 20-somethings, tend to regard Tica the dog with a range of pity and neglect. They’re tangled up in their own dramas and resentments and ignorant of the very strange things happening right at their feet.
With Wood over in the corner, Danny Tejera’s cleverly unsettling play establishes itself at a frequency that will always be slightly out of phase with reality. Tejera has written something hyperspecific yet malleable and reflective of his characters’ particularly comfortable and alienating circumstances. The three humans, not quite adults, all went to an American school in Madrid together, and they’re part of a particular superrich echelon with family scattered in financial centers around the world. (They would get along with, or probably just try to bum drugs off, the scheming junior bankers on HBO’s Industry.) The garage we’re in, as designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, is grimy but contains an Audi. Over in the corner, Juan, played by Juan Castano, works on his DJ skills and occasionally shouts in Spanish to his unseen mother upstairs. His sorta-friend Toro, played by Abubakr Ali, is pregaming with him. Toro moved back to Madrid after flaming out in New York and has taken a job with Juan at his father’s shady real-estate firm. A bit later on, their mutual school friend Andrea, played by the actor b, shows up, but only after Juan has taunted Toro about how he thinks she has a crush on him.
The crux of Toros, plotwise, is the love triangle between Juan, Toro, and Andrea, though the texture of the thing matters more than who ends up with whom. Tejera sets up a rivalry between the twitchy Juan, who is brimming with confrontational machismo — in one of several great little character details, he doesn’t change the tenor of his voice when talking to his dog — and Toro, who’s more timid. (His real name is Totah; the nickname Toro came from a soccer coach who wanted him to be more aggressive.) Juan goes after Andrea seemingly just because he wants what he thinks Toro wants. Andrea, who has decided to throw away ambition and become a kindergarten teacher, reciprocates because she’s trying to reimagine herself as a free spirit. They all see their wants at a foggy distance and act as if they’re re-creating sitcom plots out of boredom. That tone carries into the actors’ dryly calibrated performances and even the stage directions. When Andrea and Juan hook up, Tejera prescribes that instead of realistically pantomiming sex onstage, the actors should “do an abstract sex dance.” Castano and b, as directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch (who also has a background in dance), lean in as if about to kiss and then start to slam their hands against their own bodies like they’re trying to contain a demon. They end up next to each other on the couch and go into an awkward, post-sex dialogue as if nothing out of the ordinary has just occurred. The dance is strange and looks nothing like real sex yet communicates the mental state exactly.
The sex, like the dog — and eventually, the Audi, though I won’t get into what happens there — adds a layer of exciting theatrical unsteadiness to Toros. The play keeps reminding you it’s a performance, which is nice at a time when many shows seem as though they just want to be adapted into films or TV shows. (It’s no surprise that Tejera was a student of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; compare and contrast the pregaming in Toros and The Comeuppance if you’d like a free essay prompt.) But it’s crucial that all those choices underline Toro’s disconnection from reality. He explains to Andrea that he felt depersonalized while pursuing his career in New York, that “no matter what I saw in front of me, it was all so obviously performed.” Look, audience member, what you’re seeing in front of you is performed too. You may feel as Toros goes on that you’ve shared one of Andrea’s joints and maybe taken a shot or three of vodka as Toro has. The world looks awfully mutable, especially from the vantage of the aimless and rich.
To that end, there’s an evasive quality to the characters that sometimes gets the better of Tejera. These well-educated adult children are “generally good at hiding what they’re feeling,” he notes in the script, and almost respectfully, he tends to let them slip around one another instead of colliding and cracking open. The scenes get shorter in the play’s second half with a few blackouts that come when there’s still juice left in a conversation. Castano, b, and Ali have developed a spiky, believable old-frenemy chemistry, and they look as if they’d be able to go deeper in that dynamic if Tejera just kept them all in the garage longer. Toros doesn’t wrap up as much as dissolve — though that is the right choice structurally. Wood reappears (this time not as the dog), mistakes are brushed away with little consequence, and an odd kind of order reasserts itself. It’s all unreally, efficiently managed, which to these people is normal.
Toros is at the McGinn/Cazale Theater.