The ingredients in Sunsets and Margaritas are a little too strong

Sunsets and Margaritas is so energetic, jolly and good-natured, and presents such an appealing political and familial viewpoint, that it seems coldhearted not to like it, like kicking away a friendly puppy as it darts at your feet. But there are too many unfunny jokes and plot turns in this world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company. When someone steals Preparation H from a Korean-run grocery store, it's mildly amusing, but only mildly; you can envision playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez thinking, okay, what's funnier than hemorrhoids, but there haven't been any previous anal or hemorrhoid references, and for plot and thematic purposes, the purloined item could as easily have been razor blades or a bottle of soda. Some comic bits are repeated too often, and there are too many people fainting dead away, too many scenes in which a hyperventilating character breathes into a paper bag. And paterfamilias Candelario spends far too long in his underpants. Why? Because a man in underpants is always funny, right?

The script pokes fun at old-fashioned Latino machismo and Candelario's longtime assumption that it was his right to boss around the family, denigrate his son, Gregorio, and be unfaithful to his wife whenever he felt like it. Now that Candelario's an obstreperous, angry and uncontrollable widower, Gregorio and his wife, Luz, want to place him in a retirement community, but this conflicts with longstanding cultural traditions that require family members to take care of each other. In the course of the play, Candelario is humbled and Gregorio regains his manhood and strengthens his marriage. There's also a wheelchair-bound brother who designs gangster clothes for fashionable youth, and gay, Republican sister Gabby, forever wheeling her baby around in a stroller (this is the most placid child on earth; no matter how much shouting and yelling goes on around her, she never utters a peep). As the family ponders its own dynamics, a crowd gathers to demonstrate for justice for illegal immigrants. And everything culminates in a wonderful, all-inclusive party — music, dancing, jubilation and Cuban food.

The play's real strengths are visual — and must have required heroic work from set designer Sara Ryung Clement and lighting impresario Jane Spencer. The action begins with a red car crashing through the wall of the restaurant where the action is set; it remains there throughout the evening, yielding some surprises along the way. A statue in a wall cornice is illuminated by sudden buzzing and flickering lights, and eventually the Virgen de Guadalupe and other mythical and folklorish figures spring to energetic, ball-busting life.

Director Nicholas C. Avila has required a quivering, over-the-top acting style that often becomes tooth-grindingly unwatchable. At one point, a furious little old lady trundles on in a wheelchair, mugging and yelling so violently and incessantly that I closed my eyes until she'd trundled off again. No sooner had this happened than Sarah Nina Hayon rushed on as Gabby, just as high-pitched, just as crazed. It was like watching a hybrid of frantic, laugh-track-driven sitcom and the worst kind of children's show. And yet when things were allowed to calm down a little, some of the scenes did work, and Hayon's Gabby turned out to be rather sweet and funny after all. Philip Hernandez did some good as Gregorio when he wasn't being caricaturish, and April Ortiz grounded the proceedings with her flesh and blood portrayal of Luz. Jamie Ann Romero's more muted approach as Bianca worked, too. And I suspect that Ricardo Gutierrez is a far better actor than the role of Candelario allows him to reveal.

— Juliet Wittman

Sunsets and Margaritas

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman