An argument for Dramaturgy

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Watching Jose Rivera’s play “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona” is a bit like flipping through the sketchbook of a talented artist who can’t figure out exactly how all those sketches turn into a big painting.

Each sketch, on its own, is fascinating but as you move through them you start to feel the artist’s struggle and darkness.

The play begins with a suicide.  Nikki Corona’s twin sister is standing on the Bay Bridge, dialing Nikki before she jumps.  Tragically Nikki doesn’t pick up so her sister jumps and Nikki’s left with a haunting voicemail.  That message eventually leads us to the next scene, at an office called “A Better Orpheus.” Sounds promising, right? A business that takes its name from a Greek myth in which Orpheus descends to the underworld to reclaim his young bride, only to screw things up at the last minute. “A Better Orpheus” claims they’ll do better than the Greek Orpheus, and take a message to a loved one in the underworld.

This sounds like a terrific premise, you begin to imagine a riff on the Orpheus myth and reconnecting these two twin sisters in some profound way.  Not so fast.

For starters, “A Better Orpheus” employees are really terminally ill patients who are about to die. They’re a sort of after-life fedex service to deliver your message - only “A Better Orpheus” makes absolutely no claims that your message will get there and wants to make sure you understand that under no circumstances can they bring someone back to life.

Sounds like something of a setup, right?  Like a company that wants to make sure you understand that their promise isn’t really a promise.  Hang tight because you’ll see how that becomes the play’s M.O.

So now you’ve got Orpheus on the mind and you’re ready to get this message to the underworld because, after all the title is “The untranslatable secrets of Nikki Corona” so it’s fair to assume it will have something to do with Nikki Corona and these secrets of hers.

Not so fast.

Before you know it there’s a little romance, or at least the hint of one, between Nikki and the terminally ill Orlando - who like the play has a tough time with commitment.  Ah! You think. So now we’re going to have a love story.

Not so fast.

Orlando dies - which, frankly is what he was supposed to do - but not before he dodges a confrontation with his get-right-with-your-god-before-you-die conservative sister.  So you can give up on that love story and Nikki Corona of the title because you’re about to discover the play isn’t going to be about her or her secrets.

And I haven’t even gotten to act two where we confront a sort of Mr.Toad’s Wild Ride through the underworld.

Now each one of these parts is interesting on it’s own but also deeply unsatisfying because it feels like the play keeps avoiding what the play’s trying to be about.  In act two there’s a rotating turntable on stage that brings characters into view and more than once the lead character literally walks away from the action.

In the end, “The untranslatable secrets of Nikki Corona” is a powerful argument for the necessity of a good dramaturg - a wise guide who can help a talented writer turn a pile of sketches into a full canvas.

“The Untranslatable secrets of Nikki Corona” plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through October 7th.

Photo credit: Darrett Sanders