Carlos is standing in the shower and wondering what ever happened to soap on a rope. He remembers that, when he was a boy, most soap came attached to a cord or a thin chain. Something about the mechanism of that attachment caused the soap to wear down in a fairly uniform way—you knew basically what shape it would be, at the end. Plus, he winks, "You could hang it from anything."
He moves downstage and starts to sing. As a child, he crossed the border from Mexico, into America, in the middle of a ferocious storm. To keep him secure, his mother tied him to a tree by the waist. You never hear what it was like to actually get across the border—the storm and the song end, and then Carlos is back in shower again, looking at his rope-less bar of soap. The thing in his hand suddenly looks alien to him; he can't understand how it came to look the way that it does. What changed?
"Los Otros" is a big step for Everyman Theatre. Originally produced in Los Angeles in 2012, the musical was picked up and commissioned for a rewrite by the theater last year, as part of what Founding Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi describes in a video on Everyman's website as "a new phase [for Everyman] . . . where we're looking at creating new work, and helping writers to develop new stories." Associate artistic director Noah Himmelstein worked with the author of the original book and lyrics, Ellen Fitzhugh, and the original composer, the Tony-Award nominated composer Michael John LaChiusa, to restructure the work. Philip Hernández and Judy McLane, Broadway actors with bios too intimidating to summarize, were brought down from New York.
That is to say, the hype around Los Otros is nearly as much about what the production represents for the caliber of the work being done at Everyman as it is about the work itself. Baltimore enjoys figuring itself as a place more hospitable to artistic creation than its cousins to the north, and it's exciting when a local company culls enough big names to augment that with an air of mass appeal. The political relevance of the subject matter—immigration and sexuality in particular—adds further gas to the engine.
"Los Otros" has only two characters—Carlos, played by Hernández, and Lilian, a working class white woman played by McLane. Carlos and Lilian, both in late-middle-age, each tell three stories about times in their lives, ranging from their childhoods to the recent past. Hernández and McLane perform as skillfully as their reputations would suggest, and though you might not find yourself picturing the characters at four or 10 or 35, you do believe that you're watching fully formed adults looking back at their lives, which feels more satisfying.
The show's most piquant moments come when it veers towards kink. An adolescent Carlos and his friend Paco sneak into the forbidden top floor of the plantation house where they work as sharecroppers in the summer. One thing leads to another and they're having sex when they hear the foreman—an older, disabled white man—limping up the stairs. The boys barely get their clothes on before he finds them and demands they explain what was going on. Paco points at the foreman's little white cat and says they had heard her screaming.
Lilian, 40-something and divorced, meets an 18-year-old named Arturo at a burrito stand in the middle of the night—Arturo's friends tell Lilian he's a virgin. She follows his car home and they make love (Arturo does, at least; for Lilian it's something different). After, she steps out onto his driveway to find that her tires have been slashed.
These scenes are funny and hot in a sort of Margaret-Atwood-y sense, but they also bring gist and human tenor to the theme of otherness, of being other. I found myself wondering in particular about what it means for two isolations to border and reinforce one another; the divorcee and her virgin, the old man throwing secret lovers out of his room. Race plays a role in the stories, but the characters' otherness is involved in different facts as well—facts of time, desire, innocence.
That Carlos and Lilian's stories are almost entirely sung somewhere up-tempo means that the poignance of such moments lands a bit funny, emotionally speaking. There were times when I found myself wanting to be able to savor a line—like when Carlos wonders of the disabled foreman, how it must feel to be "better, but lame"—only to be pulled away to the next part of a song. In the segments that pack less of a narrative punch, the music is strong enough that it keeps your attention locked, and it's executed with sufficient variety and skill that no moment feels stagnant or empty of charge. That's commendable, but it also can feel as though the music is working as a distraction from the substance of what's being sung, or that its levity is unearned.
In 2012 (or '13, or '14, or '15), or in a 2017 in which Trump wasn't president, there might have been more satisfaction in stories with happy endings (Carlos and Paco get sent off scot-free; Arturo replaces Lilian's wheels and brings the car to her house the next day), and maybe even grounds to congratulate the book for presenting racial otherness in more domestic and forgiving contexts. But, insert your own punchline, that's not the world we're in. These are frightening times to be an American (especially a transplant), and while some may find comfort in happy endings, for many others, they don't mean much, even when they ring true.
So, Los Otros isn't tough or boundary-pushing enough for it to feel like a particularly important contribution to any ongoing national debates, but, you know, that's fine. For me, the points that linger most are the ones that don't make much of themselves—like in the beginning when Carlos ponders the alien shape of the soap in his shower.
In the final scene, we learn that he had a stroke in the shower, and that Lilian visited him in the hospital—both of them (Lilian first) were involved with a man named George, who has since died. Carlos and Lilian decide to move in together, as friends. They tell each other stories. They're sitting beside each other, when Carlos admits that something strange has started to happen to him, since he's begun to recount his memories. It's as if the characters that he recalls are trying to "come back in," he tells her, as if "all the people were trying to love me." As if you can feel everything outside pushing at the borders, even if it's not quite able to make it through.
"Los Otros" runs through April 23 at Everyman Theatre. For more information, visit everymantheatre.org.