Basilica, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York – review

Secrets abound in Basilica, the Mando Alvarado play having its premiere off-Broadway in a production by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Too many secrets, perhaps, because the second act sags under all the scenes in which truths must be revealed. Still, it is a pleasure to see a play in New York that grapples with weighty religious and philosophical questions, and in a manner not abstruse but personal.

In San Juan, Texas, a small city near the Mexican border, Joe Garza and Cesar Cantu are spending a Friday night getting drunk on beer and reliving their glory days as high-school football players. Pleasure is short-lived, though, as Father Gil, a Roman Catholic priest, has arrived at the city’s basilica, immediately reawakening conflict between him – he grew up in the community – and Joe.

Joe and Lela, his religious wife, advise Gil not to socialise with their high-school-senior son, Ray, a warning that goes unheeded when the boy shows up at the basilica seeking advice. He has been accepted at a college near Chicago, and is afraid his parents will not allow him to leave home.

Basilica pivots less on suspense – you have to be brain-dead not to guess the Big Secret – than on the rich interplay between its characters. Proud of his beer belly, Joe has an ideal interpreter in Felix Solis. There were moments when I thought that Solis was playing an idea of the character – the tough Latino father unafraid to threaten violence – more than an actuality. His gestures can be fussy, but he is very watchable and his anger drives the two-act evening.

Jake Cannavale, who portrays Ray, could not be more different from Solis. Partly this is owing to his inexperience – Basilica marks his stage debut – and partly to his physical slightness. The difference in acting styles between father and son is exactly right, even though it lessens the play’s narrative suspense.

As characters, the women are weaker. Joe and Lela’s young-adolescent daughter, Jessica, flits around trying on various religious guises (Muslim, Buddhist) that add little to the theological issues dramatised here. Chief among those issues are guilt and shame. The playwright and his director, Jerry Ruiz, have a tendency to present those topics a little heavy-handedly. But I was moved by their handiwork.

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