by Anthony P. Pennino · August 27, 2015
Alex Perez’s play Julian and Romero, currently performing in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, dramatizes the plight of gay Cubans during a crackdown by Castro in the mid-1960’s. Perez here is working within the same historical context that Reinaldo Arenas does in his seminal Before Night Falls. While the material is certainly worthy of dramatic exploration, the play ultimately misses its mark. That it does so is a terrible shame because boundless and tragic riches are alluded to throughout, and one cannot help but feel that there is a great play lurking just around the corner.
The play begins in 1966 when Julian (Sebastian Stimman) is arrested for the crime of homosexuality. He is guarded by Romero (Gonzalo Trigueros), a childhood friend, who is at first appalled by his old classmate’s behavior, but, in a moment of mercy, saves him from a beating by Raul, his commanding officer who is also Julian’s father (Jerry Soto). Raul sends both Julian and Romero to a labor camp where they further bond. Julian’s mother, Bertha (Edna Lee Figueroa), narrates. Julian eventually escapes to the United States thanks to the Mariel boat lift.
Political plays are a tricky business. The temptation to fall into polemic is great, and Perez (also directing) succumbs. Outside of one childhood incident, the audience really never gains a sense of Julian and his life outside of prison, especially his adult life; it is important for our journey with him to get a sense of what he has lost. More often than not, he displays a political sophistication for a nineteen-year-old that, in its current incarnation, seems extremely unrealistic. For instance, an argument between him and Romero concerning Che Guevera clearly benefits from a 21st-century perspective. That kind of ahistorical approach can be found throughout. The characters therefore spend more time commenting on the events of their lives rather than living them. Potentially powerful emotional moments are therefore muted. There is also certainly a naiveté on the part of the script about what life in the United States offers a gay man starting in the late 1970’s/1980. While certainly better than what is left behind, the play lacks the clearer vision of Arenas on that score.
That said, the actors do find ways of drilling down to the heart of the material. Stimman and Trigueros craft a beautiful, complex, and ultimately elegiac relationship between Julian and Romero. Even wading through stretches of exposition, they find a simple honesty that conveys the full weight of the story. Stimman is extremely effective when he is at a loss for words and does not know how to care for his friend after the latter has been tortured. It is here that Julian and Romero gets off its soapbox and becomes, fleetingly, the requiem it should be.