The program for “American (Tele)visions,” which opened Thursday at the New York Theater Workshop, comes with an addendum tucked inside: a bibliography of the nearly 50 books, movies, and works of art and music that inspired the playwright, Victor I. Cazares. The wide-ranging list of titles includes works by Luis Buñuel, Haruki Murakami and the Magnetic Fields as well as Stephen Mitchell’s 2000 translation of the Bhagavad Gita.
It’s a fitting way to illustrate the occasionally unwieldy yet often absorbing treasury of themes, metaphors and ’90s American cultural touchstones that is this memory play, which is set among the reflective screens of a Walmart television department.
For young Erica and her family, undocumented Mexican immigrants living in a “poor but racially diverse” trailer park, Walmart is the linoleum-floored, discount-priced heaven where dreams come to life. Erica (Bianca “b” Norwood), who prefers boys’ clothes and toys, eyes racecars while her best friend, Jeremy (Ryan J. Haddad), zeros in on the pink boxes of Barbies. Erica’s father, Octavio (Raúl Castillo), stands entranced by the TVs — just like he sits for hours, in a near-catatonic state of despondency, at home. Her mother, Maria Ximena (Elia Monte-Brown), disappears to some unknown part of the store for a reason Erica knows is connected to Maria’s later abandonment of her family for a truck driver. And her brother, Alejandro, is secretly buying K-Y Jelly and condoms.
But Alejandro can’t even play himself in this scrambled account of the family, because he’s already dead, Erica tells us. So Maria Ximena assigns the role to Alejandro’s best friend, Jesse (Clew), who came home with Alejandro one night and ended up staying.
Though the story already has the hairpin turns of a telenovela, full of secret affairs, betrayals, familial resentments, deaths and a gasp-worthy slap, the characters — Erica in particular — are empowered to lead the narrative, changing the chronology of events, reframing and re-categorizing challenging memories. Which makes “American (Tele)visions” an acrobatic work of storytelling. It switches modes and tones so rapidly — from the living room couch to Erica and Jeremy’s imaginary detective series to Walmart’s layaway department — that the production evokes the sensation of channel-surfing.
Rubén Polendo’s direction is lively and clearsighted but also exaggerates the vulnerabilities in the script: the heightened language, repetitive and overstuffed with a few too many metaphors (Octavio is a television, Alejandro is a chain-link fence), and the length. Even though it runs just 100 minutes without an intermission, the show seems to stretch on and on like the channel guide for a premier cable TV package.
Though Norwood, a nonbinary actor who uses the pronouns they/them, spends most of the play as Erica’s bright, imaginative childhood self, there are traces of adult Erica in their performance: a certain bluster and confidence, a kind of grown-up wisdom of someone who has come to terms with her trauma. As Erica’s parents, Monte-Brown is at her best when unleashing a mother’s roar of grief, and Castillo grounds his performance in a crushing, pervasive melancholy.
While cast as the supporting actor in Erica’s life and fantasies, Haddad’s Jeremy comes across as a fully formed figure in his own right, delivering some of the play’s best quips, like when he calls a capitalist video-game-style villainess an “Ayn Rand erotic fantasy.” As a brilliant composite of Alejandro and Jesse, Clew, who also uses the pronouns they/them, is both strangely present and absent: As two characters, one living and one dead, they give a performance that feels fittingly transitory. They run in and out of scenes, switch characters from line to line; it’s almost as if they’re part ghost.
The show, which is co-produced by Theater Mitu, which is known for its experimental mixed-media theater, has high-definition color and depth. Bretta Gerecke’s set design elicits the immersive feeling of living in a world of screens: The stage is a colossal box, inside which there are four towering cubes, two stacked on each side, that swing open to reveal micro-settings (a forest that’s been struck by a meteorite, a living room, the front exterior of a truck and a Walmart toy aisle). Animations, recorded videos and live camera footage are projected onto the surfaces of the cubes and the back and side walls of the set, helping to illustrate a breathless story that begins with the scourge of U.S. capitalism (“I want to not want,” Erica declares) and contends with immigration, citizenship, queerness, the intersection of commerce and gender roles.
The lighting design (by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) is as eye-catching as you’d expect in a show about electronics, from a dreamy aquamarine to the hazy twin beams of a car’s headlights in the distance. So are the intentionally tawdry specialty costumes (designed by the “Project Runway” alum Mondo Guerra), which include a pink, frilly princess dress and a mermaid-cut white-and-black bar-code dress with fringe and headpiece.
“American (Tele)visions” can be a bit repetitive at times. Yet the production still manages to surprise and entertain — so don’t touch that dial.
Through Oct. 16 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.