Arts

Review: Pasadena Playhouse’s ‘One of the Good Ones’ Is a Culturally Relevant Comedy

(L-R) Lana Parrilla, Carlos Gomez, Nico Greetham, and Isabella Gomez in the world premiere of "One of the Good Ones" at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

The heralded Pasadena Playhouse has commissioned a refreshingly contemporaneous play, which made its world premiere on March 17th. For ninety minutes, a vibrantly receptive audience heartily resonated with and laughed uninterruptedly alongside the memorable Latin American characters in Gloria Calderón Kellett’s One of the Good Ones. Family comedies appealing to cultural disagreements can rely on well-worn tropes, but this one goes beyond the call of duty to elicit an impassioned discussion, if nothing else, about identity, family values, relationships, politics and, most importantly, peace.

The premise is simple on the surface, borrowing elements from Meet the Parents, Father of the Bride, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but has a multitude of surprises under its narrative sleeve. Yoli (Isabella Gomez), who has just completed her undergraduate degree, returns home to parents Enrique (Carlos Gomez) and Ilana (Lana Parrilla) where tensions peaked because Yoli’s “serious boyfriend,” Marcos (Nico Greetham), is joining them for dinner.

(L-R) Lana Parrilla, Carlos Gomez, and Isabella Gomez in the world premiere of One of the Good Ones at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Each character is clearly defined, with discrete motivations and reasons for being “right” amid banter and intense conversations which are cleverly imbued with wit, humor, and sidesplitting callbacks. In what is a function of Kimberly Senior’s stellar directorial style, the pacing and timing are of the highest level as dialogue is often exchanged rapidly, though words never feel rushed as scenes breathe long enough for the audience to retrieve their breath.

Yoli, who loves her parents but also desires open communication channels with them, drives the story as a girl who has become an adult woman. Yoli is also emboldened by the new-school (liberal) politics absorbed through her schooling; thus, she wields words like “colonialism,” “patriarchy,” and “inclusivity” with an intent to enlighten her parents who represent more of an old-school philosophy which isn’t necessarily conservative in nature but at least not preoccupied with social justice-informed ideas. Isabella Gomez gives Yoli a staunch purpose and an empowered confidence which scores points with “mic-drop” rejoinders specifically during verbal volleying with her proud and Cuban American father Enrique. Despite this, Yoli and Enrique share an exclusive bond in that the two are fluent in Spanish, but Ilana isn’t.

Carlos Gomez fills Enrique with characteristics like that of his lauded portrayal as the overprotective Kevin Rosario in In the Heights. Gomez epitomizes the type of proud Latino dad many from such households can relate to; he is adoring but quick to temper, believes in keeping appearances (even if objectively false), is a traditionalist about romantic relationships, and thinks that Yoli’s significant other should initially fear him as a matter of respect. The play wouldn’t work as well without Gomez’s (hilarious) non-verbal touches which fully materialize Enrique’s unrelenting bravado and stubbornness as the central dissenter.

(L-R) Isabella Gomez and Lana Parrilla in the world premiere of One of the Good Ones at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

For argument’s sake, if Enrique is the idealogical opposite of Yoli, then Ilana, a successful businesswoman of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, is the go-between. Ilana is challenged with overcoming her internalized oppression and guilt of having been discouraged by her parents to speak only English in lieu of Spanish. She is menopausal, frantically dabs her armpits, eschews negative topics, and stands up for herself when called for. Lana Parrilla of Once Upon a Time fame is a revelation as the Gen X wife and mother; for instance, her opening scene with Santino Jimenez’s Pedro, a flower delivery driver who stands awkwardly at the door as he watches Ilana try and fail to converse with him in Spanish, immediately sways the crowd into a laugh-out-loud mood.

Ilana, notwithstanding perhaps being out of touch in some respects, also makes her fair share of winning statements regarding motherhood and the inequity of not being included by members of her family. Parrilla offers a mix of vulnerability, grit, anger, and funny absurdity in her rendering of the complex Ilana.

As engaging as One of the Good Ones is before the arrival of Nico Greetham’s Marcos, it achieves a fever pitch of comedy upon his introduction with piñata in tow. Marcos, a genealogically white guy who was born and partially raised in Mexico, is a student of history, uber literal and logical, innocently unfiltered, and particularly the bane of Enrique who is dumbfounded by what he sees and hears. The hijinks that result when Greetham uproariously expresses his oblivious but well-meaning “self-help” character, both in relation to Gomez’s Enrique and Parrilla’s Ilana, is the main attraction that makes the second act as compelling as it is.

Lana Parrilla (in white coat) with Carlos Gomez and Isabella Gomez in the world premiere of One of the Good Ones at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Calderón Kellett’s writing is enterprising in the manner it engages, ingratiates itself to, and appropriately provokes the observer. For example, the play propounds the notion of how one’s identity is defined. Is it contingent upon nationality, heritage, appearance, or an amalgam of all the above? Is it dependent on how we see ourselves, how others see us, or should we simply just identify within the parameters of our nuclear family? And what about using non-gendered terms to denote inclusivity? In other words, should the masculine “Latinos” be used to describe a collective of “Latinos” and “Latinas,” or should it be an amended descriptor like “Latines”?

The foregoing doesn’t even cover the breadth of ancestral trauma, immigrant erasure, and the bridging of an intergenerational gap as represented by Yoli and Marcos on one side and Ilana and Enrique on the other. Certainly, while Yoli and Marcos authoritatively speak on modern-day sensibilities and values, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more evolved; that is, experience can trump a predominantly textbook-derived education. It’s crucial to be open-minded, which is the intentional position the playwright ostensibly takes given that, through the well-crafted contentions of the characters — each with moments to shine and falter — there is a simultaneous acceptance and repudiation of both old-school and new-school ideals. And maybe that’s the point, wherein the answer on how to view the world and each other lies within a mutual ground where people and generations can be united.

(L-R) Carlos Gomez, Nico Greetham, Isabella Gomez, and Lana Parrilla in the world premiere of One of the Good Ones at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Jeff Lorch

The setting of One of the Good Ones is coincidentally in Pasadena inside a gorgeous, modern Art Deco home, underscored via Tanya Orellana’s breathtaking set which features wood-paneling, a fireplace column, chandeliers, a leather sectional, and chic dinner table. Furthermore, Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes align with contemporary fashion while being duly understated; Jaymi Lee Smith’s abundant lighting brings out the opulent colors of the set, the outfits, as well as the expressions of the actors; and, Jeff Gardner and Andrea Allmond’s sound design ensures that each word, even uttered concurrently through crosstalk, is clearly heard.

“To recap,” as Carlos Gomez’s Enrique repeatedly and comically says, One of the Good Ones is in fact among a category of high-quality plays. Calderón Kellett’s phrasing is freshly spiced, exciting, flirts with satire as a splendidly rhetorical tool, is riotous, and, above all, encourages discourse between differing perspectives. And with a cast that immaculately realizes and conveys Calderón Kellett’s messaging, this is a culturally pertinent production that will subsist in the performing-arts consciousness for the foreseeable future.

One of the Good Ones runs through Sunday, April 7th. For more details and to purchase tickets to Pasadena Playhouse’s world-premiere production, visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.

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