'References to Salvador Dali' ... maybe not

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday July 12, 2022
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Caleb Cabrera (Benito) and Carla Gallardo (Gabriela) in 'References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot' photo: Jay Yamada
Caleb Cabrera (Benito) and Carla Gallardo (Gabriela) in 'References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot' photo: Jay Yamada

Magical realist frosting is slathered thick on the humble crumbs at the heart of "References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot," now playing in a Custom Made Theatre production. Frankly, with its anthropomorphized animals and moonlit mysticism, playwright José Rivera's drama tastes as if drawn from the larder of Gabriel Garcia Marquez rather than Dali.

Regardless, the show is overdecorated and underbaked.

The core of the play, set amidst U.S. military housing in Barstow, California during the Persian Gulf war, is the strained marriage of Benito (Caleb Cabrera), an enlisted soldier who returns home only once every few months, and Gabriela (Carla Gallardo), an intellectually ambitious young woman who feels trapped in the role of Army wife.

Gallardo, whose delivery is as crisp and sharp as her facial features, and Cabrera, who plays an alluringly non-chalant Moon in addition to the passionate but inarticulate G.I., are both superb beyond the script they're adrift in.

Altogether believable as a working class couple in both squabbles and sex scenes, they generate a fractious chemistry that transcends strained dialogue in which guns are likened to genitals and all-too-familiar debates about marital roles are revisited. I haven't encountered these performers before, but am eager to see them in future work.

Well-played as it is here, the military kitchen-sink school of drama hasn't felt fresh since its heyday in post-Vietnam cinema like "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter." Updating it to take place during Desert Storm doesn't make it significantly less familiar (Rivera does offer a sharp insight about the upgraded soullessness of directing weapons deployment from desktop computers).

Alejandra Wahl (Cat) and Carla Gallardo (Gabriela) in 'References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot' photo: Jay Yamada  

Still, I'd much prefer the solid, simple poundcake of domestic realism to the gaudy marzipan carapace in which Rivera has trapped his protagonists. Even before Gabriela and Benito arrive on stage, we meet Gabriela's pet Cat (Alejandra Wahl) and a lurking local Coyote (Gabriel Ross) who turn out to be unnecessary avatars for their human counterparts: Coyote is the untamed male hunter, roaming free and living dangerously; Cat is a creature in search of sophisticated domesticity.

We get it. But Rivera doesn't know where to go with it. The hairy dopplegangers show up in a preamble even before Custom Made's curtain speech, then stick around for the show's whole 90 minutes adding little but dubious whimsy. There's a subplot about a peeping Tom teenage neighbor smitten with Gabriella that also feels tacked on for little purpose.

Sarah Pykitt's single-set stage design is yet another veil of fondant working to sweeten things up. An abstract arrangement of bright green refrigerator, stacked orange drawers and blue fence pickets is finished off with a tall female silhouette, visually sampled from the Dali painting "Burning Giraffe Woman with Drawers." Sometimes Dali is just silly.

Director Katja Rivera (no relation to the playwright) deserves credit for keeping her cast, particularly Cabrera and Gallardo, emotionally grounded amidst the frippery. But the script fights against itself even harder than Gabriela battles Benito.

Playwright Rivera may have been trying to leaven a painful, oft-told story here but his proportions are all wrong. An excess of icing collapses the cake.

'References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot' through July 24. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., 6th Floor. $36-$40. (415) 798-2682. www.custommade.org

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