The kind of comedy that trafficked in cultural generalities flourished on stage for decades, then migrated to the slick, swift silliness of the sitcom, where the writing eventually grew sharper and the laughs carried more sting.
The need for gentle stage comedies that begin by showing us how different we are and end by underscoring our similarities — Aren't families crazy? Aren't aging parents a pain in the tuchus? — diminished, which is kind of too bad.
Not every night at the theater needs to be a dark, bloody Martin McDonagh comedy or a fraught comedy/drama hybrid from the camp occupied by a host of younger writers including Sarah Ruhl and Theresa Rebeck. There's such a thing as theatrical comfort food, and that's what TheatreWorks' "Sunsets and Margaritas" turns out to be.
The Jose Cruz Gonzalez comedy now at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto is immediately familiar. Scenic designer Frank Sarmiento plops us into the comfy confines of the Serenata Colorado Restaurant & Cantina, a colorful Mexican restaurant in a tiny Colorado town. This is the kind of place we're told (in somewhat clumsy exposition) that has been the heart of the barrio for 50 years. It's even a spot where Charo has chosen to dine.
A husband and wife enter bickering. With a sigh of contentment (and maybe a hint of disappointment) the gears of efficiently frenetic family comedy begin clanking and whirring.
The issue at hand is not whether the loyal son will end up putting his increasingly loco papa into an old folks' home, but rather the son's struggle to fulfill one of his dead mother's greatest wishes: that he step out of his father's shadow and become his own man.
The son, Gregorio (Tommy A. Gomez), is a career fireman now suffering from panic attacks. The attacks are comic in nature because in real life, he'd pop pills to dull the anxiety. Here, he breathes into the paper bag he always keeps in his pocket.
The out-of-control senior citizen is Candelario "Candy" Serrano (Daniel Valdez), and we meet him in an original, rather explosive way (let's just say that Sarmiento's set holds more than a few nice surprises). And if that weren't enough, he's waving a pistol and running around in his underwear.
Ay, papi! Aren't families crazy? Oh, but wait. The wackiness has only begun. The rules of comfort comedy mean that every character has to be a type regardless of the culture being mined for laughs. Here, the playwright partners Gregorio with a tough-but-loving wife (Roxane Carrasco) — Is there any other kind? He has a clothes-designing son (Miles Gaston Villanueva) harboring secrets and a talent for tricking out his electric wheelchair with street-ready hydraulic lift. He also has a daughter (Dena Martinez) so whiny and shrill that only dogs can hear portions of her performance.
Martinez is a skilled comic actor who manages to find a few nice comic moments in this lesbian Latina Republican who is unable to decide on Ashley, Amber or Courtney for her newborn's name.
Throw in an undocumented waitress (Erika Yanin Perez-Hernandez) espousing political beliefs and a goofy sheriff (Nestor Campos Jr.), and we have a stage sitcom recipe chock full o' nuts.
But here's the funny thing: Playwright Gonzalez and director Amy Gonzalez (no relation, though they have known each other since they were kids growing up in Southern California) serve it all up in a smooth, gently entertaining package. There are genuine laughs amid the schmaltz, and Gomez as Gregorio works hard to anchor the mayhem in some real emotion.
Gonzalez's script also nods in the direction of magic realism with truly delightful results. Without the otherworldly visits from Lucinda Serrano as a variety of apparitions (including a hilarious Our Lady of Guadalupe by way of Bette Midler at her brassiest), this would be pure sitcom territory. But the visions, which Gregorio sees when passed out from his panic attacks, add some unexpected fizz to the otherwise predictable twists of this familial tale.
It's easy to love Our Lady when she pops out the front of a car, mic in hand, and says in perfect stand-up fashion, "It's good to be back in the 'hood."
Aside from a few curse words, that's about as edgy as things get here, but one of the rules of comfort comedy is that you don't push too hard or let too much of the real world in. You could certainly never call "Sunsets and Margaritas" cynical.
Give the playwright credit for not mucking things up with silly romances but rather sticking to his goal of seeing a middle-aged, baby-boomer son deal with his increasingly dangerous father and for confining the romance to that of long-married spouses gamely working through their own issues.
This mostly straightforward (save for the salty blessings of Our Lady) family sitcom works toward a resolution that will make everybody happy.
What: "Sunsets and Margaritas" by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through April 4 with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. shows Saturday and Sunday, and 7 p.m. shows Sunday.
Cost: Tickets are $29-$62 with student, senior and educator discounts.
Info: Go to www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.