A play with its head in the clouds


By Scott Harrah

José Rivera, primarily known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” is currently directing a film adaptation of this 1997 Off-Broadway one act with Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the leading role. That is perhaps the main reason why Out of Line Productions mounted this sparse revival of “Cloud Tectonics,” which was originally produced by Playwrights Horizons. Although the story’s surrealistic narrative style mimics the Latino, magical realism of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s novels and has a lot of interesting metaphysical things to say about America at the end of the 20th century, the play is still flawed, and less than a decade later, it already seems dated.

The plot centers on the odd happenings one night during a flood in mid-90s Los Angeles. The main character Celestina (Frederique Nahmani) is a pregnant hitchhiker who gets picked up by LAX baggage handler Anibal (Luis Vega), a New Yorker who has recently relocated to California. He discovers that Celestina is from Long Island, but she has no concept of time whatsoever and doesn’t wear a watch. Although she looks like she’s only in her 20s, she makes the bizarre claim that she is 54 years old and has been pregnant for two years. She has been traveling cross-country searching for the unborn baby’s father.

Anibal drives Celestina back to his home, and in no time he’s hot for her. Anibal’s kid brother Nelson (Julio Rivera) drops by unexpectedly to announce that he’s in California to train in the military before heading off to war in Bosnia. Anibal hasn’t seen Nelson in six years, but soon they are literally fighting over Celestina.

The story takes a surreal turn when we learn that two years have gone by during this one night, and by dawn, Nelson has arrived back from the war in Bosnia and is all set to marry Celestina. Does this all sound a bit confusing? It is indeed. In addition, this apocalyptic romance was written years before 9/11, at a time when New York was considered safe compared to LA with its earthquakes and other natural disasters. Early in the play, Anibal confesses to Celestina that L.A. is a place that is constantly on the brink of mass destruction, where the death toll can reach into the hundreds or thousands after any catastrophe. “And I’m not even talking fire season,” he adds. He points out that, in New York, people only die in “little countable deaths” like muggings. And quite ironically, at the play’s end, L.A. becomes the new capital of the U.S., with the White House on Wilshire Boulevard and the World Trade Center close by. This storyline—which may have been prophetic in the 1990s—now seems almost innocent and naïve since we live in an era when New York and most of the Western world is in fear of terrorists, and Armageddon can happen anywhere.

James Phillips Gates directs the talented young cast at a seamless pace, and the special effects (thunder, rain, lightening, etc.) are a nice touch. Rivera’s script has lots of poetic dialogue and literary symbolism, but he tries to tell an epic story that takes place over several years, with a plot that’s just far too complex for a one act. Ultimately, “Cloud Tectonics” is a whimsical mixture of science fiction and drama, but it lacks structure and thematic focus, like an old episode of TV’s “The Twilight Zone” that was not quite good enough to air.