The opening moments are pulse-poundingly exciting — music, live wrestling, flashing lights, tons of adrenaline from an already hyped-up audience. But the actual scripted beginning of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety is quiet, as a Puerto Rican kid called Macedonio Guerra — Mace — describes his lifelong fascination with pro wrestling in an extended and appealing monologue. Now Mace is immersed in the world he so admired as a kid: He's a literal fall guy, the fighter employed to lose to the federation's star, Chad Deity — who, in fact, can't fight a lick. Then Deity swaggers down the aisle while rock music roars, tossing out hundred-dollar bills bearing his likeness, a huge gold belt accentuating his magnificently muscled torso, and the adrenaline surges again. For the entire evening, the play's mix of emotional intensity and over-the-top theatricality grabs us in a headlock and won't let go.
Mace meets a hyper-charged young Indian from Brooklyn named Vigneshwar Paduar who's fluent in the tough-guy speak of several city neighborhoods and also a handful of foreign languages; his family has been adaptable and ingenious enough to scrabble its way to financial comfort. Mace introduces VP to league owner Everett K. Olson, or EKO, who soon figures out a way to make use of what he sees as the Indian's indeterminate nationality in the ring. He'll be from one of those Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan or — hey! — Israel. They'll dub him the Fundamentalist, and he'll fight a wholesome all-American boy; Mace, wearing an idiotic sombrero and dubbed Che-Chavez-Castro, will serve as villainous sidekick. None of this is subtle, but neither is professional wrestling's shameless dealing in prejudice and stereotype. The wonder is that so many Americans outside the wrestling scene accept these cartoonish and xenophobic ideas.
We don't know what VP is thinking as he stands motionless in the ring, observing his opponent. What we do soon discover is that he has one highly effective move and no intention at all of following EKO's directions.
Kristoffer Diaz's script, in a regional premiere as the season opener at Curious Theatre Company, is absorbing, funny, wicked smart. Though his parody of the wrestling world is broad, his characters are shaded and individualized. You never see Mace as a chump, even as you absorb the humiliating nature of his work. Instead, you identify with his love for wrestling. Slimy moneyman EKO has a kind of hardened competence you at least half-respect. Deity may be milking the system for all it's worth, but he's sharp enough not to believe his own myth. The real brilliance of Chad Deity, however, lies in the play's pure theatricality, the way Diaz uses the grimy, over-the-top antics of professional wrestling to tell a story with brain and heart.
Bill Hahn is snakelike perfection as EKO. Bollywood star Akshay Kapoor's VP is ultimately unreadable, as he should be. Playing Chad Deity, Patrick Byas radiates power and charisma, though I swear he could hold an audience spellbound by just twitching a muscle or two (which he periodically does). And you fall at least halfway in love with Michael Lopez, who gives Mace both vulnerability and dignity. This is a show in which tech is crucial and Charlie Packard (set), Ann Piano (costumes), Shannon McKinney (lights) and sound designer Brian Freeland take the sound and visuals to the heights.
Only one moment disappoints: the confessional monologue in which Mace tells us all he ever really wanted was to tell a true story — which, of course, he's just done. I was sure the character wanted much more, and the insight felt flimsy and conventional, given the originality of the rest of the play. The fact that much of the play's story is told in monologues was the subject of a charged blog exchange between Diaz and New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, who thought the device lazy. Overall, I think it works.
Still, the primary theme of Chad Deity is embedded in the action rather than spoken. It has to do with the crumbling of the old order as the world shrinks; ideas fly from country to country; and immigrants bring to the United States an ability to see things off-kilter, take on established structures, stand them on their heads, and put them to new uses. Just as Diaz and a new generation of playwrights clearly intend to do.