Fade is a play you really, really want to like.
It has characters you rarely get to see onstage, a playwright with an interesting perspective, and an environment that seems ripe for examination — the world of television.
Yet, in spite of all of that, Tatyana-Marie Carlo’s production of Tanya Saracho’s two-hander is a bunch of parts that sadly don’t add up to very much.
Saracho has written for a wide variety of television shows, including Devious Maids, the experience of which inspired Fade, and she’s currently the showrunner on Vida, which Vulture listed as one of the best shows of 2019.
So, while I had high hopes going in, it was evident pretty early on that perhaps this play was meant to be a screenplay, with its series of ultra-short and then never-ending scenes, very few of which were built around a moment or event.
The play takes place in the office of Lucia, played by Elia Saldana, a novelist-turned-tv-writer who’s just been hired to work on a show with a Latina protagonist in order to give it some authenticity, although she suspects that tokenism might be at play.
One day, Lucia strikes up a conversation with a custodian named Abel, played by Daniel Duque-Estrada, and the two form something between a friendship and a work-relationship that never ends up being truly defined.
Abel is a man who keeps to himself, and it takes a while for Lucia to get him to open up to her. She, on the other hand, seems to be an open book, a woman who grew up wealthy and always seems to be putting her foot in her mouth.
Being a recent transplant to Los Angeles, she attacks the opportunity to make friends with someone with whom she feels a kinship, although Abel is reluctant to befriend someone he doesn’t feel all that similar to.
Throughout the show, there are hints at…just about everything.
That Abel’s politics might skew more towards the conservative.
That Lucia might be a little more skilled at navigating her new job than she initially lets on.
That these two are going to have an in-depth discussion about how class systems within disenfranchised communities can create confusing rifts between two people even when the urge to connect is there.
A lot of hints, and not a lot of satisfaction even when some of the hints lead to a story.
In fact, the first half of the play is almost completely devoid of plot, and when one finally arrives, it’s a pretty pedestrian one. Just about everything you expect to happen (and wish wouldn’t) does, and when the show is over, you’re left wondering what it is exactly that you’re supposed to take from what you just saw.
The experience of watching it involves wishing that the characters would dig deeper into any one of the hundred or so topics, opinions and/or arguments they start but never finish. There lurks a good play (or seven) in there somewhere, but instead we get an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that would be difficult for any playwright to pull off.
I should mention that none of this criticism falls on the actors. Saldana and Duque-Estrada are doing their best to make what’s essentially a series of meandering conversations come alive, and they succeed more than they fail.
Saldana gives Lucia everything she’s got, but she’s not given any opportunities to pull her character back from coming across as one-note. The struggle she talks about is ultimately talked about more than shown, and we see more evolution happen through her choice of wardrobe (costumed smartly by Amanda Downing Carney) than we do through the words she’s given.
It’s odd since the play seems to be at least somewhat autobiographical. Lucia is a character Saracho obviously understands very well, but for some reason, she’s much harder on her than she is on Abel. It may be that she didn’t want the character she most identified with coming across as being the more likable one, but Lucia in her current form is nothing more than a series of opinions and a strong sense of ambition. The only blip we see of a character rests in her admission that she feels lonely in this new city, and I desperately wanted to hear more about that and less about the behind-the-scenes politics that Abel isn’t even partaking in and that we’ve seen covered a million times before in movies like The Player. If the idea is that now we get that same window into the industry from a new point of view, I’m all for it, but the results don’t seem that insightful.
Duque-Estrada crafts Abel’s physicality beautifully, and when he’s finally allowed to stop playing the stereotypical, wounded male lead he really helps elevate the play almost toward something worth watching. Saracho gives him plenty of background material (albeit mostly cliched), but only explores about a third of it, and then we find out that it’s all been used for an unnecessary plot twist that just feels cheap and unearned.
Without giving anything away, the intermission-less hour and 40-minute show concludes with two scenes that sum up all of the plays flaws — one is a paint-by-numbers character-resolution “I’m on the phone” moment and the other is so abrupt I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, “Wait, is that it?”
Carlo does a nice job keeping pace within the scenes themselves, but the show features some of the most laborious transitions I’ve seen in recent memory, and like the script, a lighter hand with some of the details would have gone a long way.
(Based on the computer monitor in her office, we’re led to believe Lucia works at a place called Studio Studios…Really?)
Minus the screensaver, the set design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr. does a great job at evoking a Hollywood backlot office, and it’s that specificity I wish had existed throughout the production.
When you’re watching it, little bursts of genius will pop out — most of them humorous — that make you wish Saracho had just leaned into writing a blistering showbusiness satire with Lucia as the star or Abel going from office to office to show us all sides of what it’s like working on this network drama.
At one point, Lucia complains that the head writers of the show don’t even know what country the protagonist is from, exclaiming “She can’t just be from Latinia!”
It’s that kind of frustration one leaves the theater with, and also a bit of hope that maybe if Saracho keeps working on this script, it might one day be ready for primetime.
Fade runs through January 5, 2020 at Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St, PVD. For tickets and more information, call 401-351-4242 or visit trinityrep.com/show/fade.