Tortilla Curtain


Photo by Richard Green

By Philip Pearce

OLD TIME WARNER BROTHERS gangster movies sometimes advertised themselves as “Torn from Today’s Headlines.” Tortilla Curtain, which opened a four-weekend run at The Western Stage last Saturday, could claim to be torn from the political rhetoric of a 2016 presidential election.

The curtain, as you might guess, is the separation, sometimes dark, sometimes comical, between the American dreams of upwardly mobile whites as opposed to those of undocumented immigrant workers.

The two sides crash into each other in the opening seconds of the play, when sympathetic white liberal Delaney Mossbacher stares into the face of undocumented Mexican Candido Rincon which he has just bloodied with the front of his car. Terrified he’ll get deported, Rincon races off. Concerned but conscious of his hitherto spotless driving record, Mossbacher searches for Rincon but not too hard. So the accident goes unreported, but the lives of these two central antagonists continue to impact each other over the course of the next five months even though they don’t meet again face to face till the last few minutes of the story.

All too soon the tortilla curtain becomes a wall. Literally. Sound familiar? It’s what residents of Mossbach’s gated community in the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of Los Angeles want to build against imagined encroachments from illegals who camp in the wooded canyon below their pools and manicured lawns and pester them for jobs in the post office parking lot. Delaney, a live-in dad who writes a column for an environmental magazine, is a holdout. The proposed wall will only blot out the spectacular natural views that have influenced him and wife Kyra to move into the Arroyo Blanco gated community. Like the people who occupy them, the houses in Arroyo Blanco are identical in structure but differ in being painted slightly different shades of white.

The wall gets built and one immediate irony is that one of the workers hired to build it is Rincon, and it earns him enough to start saving up for a move from the open air to a local apartment. But the central irony of Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation of T.C. Boyle’s popular 1995 novel comes from watching setbacks and catastrophes, misunderstood and misinterpreted on both sides of the wall, transform the confused Mossbach from a well-meaning guy with all the right liberal attitudes into a gun-packing private vigilante stalking the man he mistakenly thinks has been the cause of all his troubles.

The cast do a fine job. Jeff McGrath has a way with threatened authority figures, as he proved in Western Stage’s wonderful The Arsonists. He’s aware of the wry comedy of nice-guy Mossbacher but never overplays it in a way that turns him into nothing more than a dope or a dupe. Spangler’s take on the white-brown conflict is never so one-sided that things become slanted or preachy. When the wounded Rincon’s pregnant wife America, played with charm and understanding by Elizabeth Murillo, is robbed and assaulted on payday, it’s by Jacob Juarez’s sinister Latino Jose, not Derrick Contreras’s equally noxious spray-painting anglo Jack Jr., son of the tenants association chairman.

As the conflicted, vulnerable but ultimately noble Rincon, Adam J. Saucedo gets just the right balance between terror, pathos and macho bluster, and as TA chairman Jack Sr., Carl Twisselman manages to make his Donald Trump racial attitudes sound funny and blindly ingratiating.

The script faces the same challenges most stage adaptations of novels face. It has to cover quick changes of locale and the inner thoughts and decisions of the characters. Playwright Spangler and director Lorenzo Aragon orchestrate the shifts in setting and the inner thoughts with some steady and generally well-balanced narration. Characters tell you where they are and what they’re thinking without its ever seeming prosy or preachy.

Adaptations like this one sometimes also have to dramatize events that are too vast and spectacular to fit comfortably into a space as small as the Western Stage Studio. Tortilla Curtain has two such Big Moments—one a major fire, the other an even more destructive mudslide. Characters under threat point and shout and flee with pieces of the set. Helmeted fire crews point and shout and flee. But a lot of the meaning of these two big moments gets lost (and I can’t suggest a solution) in all the logical but confusing shouting and chaos.

For me, this happened most tellingly in the final minutes, where Mossbacher swims desperately through the muddy waters to the safety of a raft made from remnants of Rincon and America’s shack.

If I got the right message, it was a really bitter and dark distillation of everything that has gone before. As the Mexican couple lift the Anglo victim to safety, Boyle and Spangler seem to say there are no real political, religious or diplomatic ways of breaking through the Tortilla Curtain. In their narrative scheme, it can only happen through an event insurance companies used to and maybe still do call an Act of God.