By Ron Fassler . . .
In Guadalís Del Carmen’s two-character play, Bees & Honey, the path from meet-cute to eventual marriage to sad dissolution is depicted across the span of two hours. Though well-acted by Xavier Pacheco and Maribel Martinez, their conversations as Manuel and Johaira forcibly leading to things playing out in an all-too familiar fashion. Strikingly so in that memories of the Manhattan Class Company’s 2019 production of Loy A. Webb’s two-hander, The Light, staged in the same theater, came flooding back to me. A far bolder and tense drama, Webb worked hard to make the characters of Rashad and Genesis’s Blackness essential to their story. In Bees & Honey, Manuel and Johaira take pride and full ownership of their Dominican heritages, yet only in one scene does Del Carmen have them argue over their degrees of Blackness, which seemed like fertile ground barely covered. The playwright seems more interested in pushing along with artificial plot contrivances, to the detriment of its drama. Alzheimer’s, rape, pregnancy and suicide, all make of elements of its story, which is far too much for such a slim piece to handle effectively.
When we meet them, Johaira is on one side of the stage getting a manicure in a salon and recalling the time she met Manuel. At the same time, Manuel is across from her in the garage he owns using his relationship to members of the audience close by to express his thoughts and feelings on the same subject. Their monologues intersect and from there it’s off to a memory play, never to return to these narrators, unreliable or not. That could have been an interesting way to go, but instead, moves in a steady and linear manner.
They are from different backgrounds, she of an easier path due to her family’s financial status, and he a gritty up-and-comer. Thus, this lawyer and mechanic move forward in marriage, allowing their physical attraction to outweigh issues they eventually face once sex fades and the reality of living together seeps in. The work involved to insure their professional lives thrive while addressing their interpersonal relationship is where the conflict lies and arguments, though initially compelling, give way to a relentless sameness. The drama tends to sink under the weight of its own earnestness, particularly with regard to the central rape case Johaira is prosecuting (and that we only hear about), making it difficult to invest in.
Luckily, Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco are natural actors who don’t force a thing. Pacheco’s simplistic responses in the moment often belie a person of mixed sensitivities. While displaying a woeful expression, his wounds underneath feel distressingly close to the surface, bringing a welcomed depth to his work. Martinez is able to convey genuine intelligence alongside an earthy sexuality that feels sincerely lived. Her believability, at all times, even when grappling with certain contrivances that aren’t organically provided by the playwright, ring true. Both performances are testament to Melissa Crespo’s direction, which is clear and concise.
The apartment dwelling designed by Shoko Kambara, aided by colorful murals on either side of the stage, depict well the feel of the Washington Heights neighborhood in which it takes place. There’s even the nice touch of a mural painted on the floor of the apartment downstage. Costumes by Devario D. Simmons are appropriate and Reza Behjat’s lighting transports us outside the apartment when necessary without benefit of scenery or props.
With some of the play written to be spoken in Spanish, at the performance I attended, those references were often played to the hilt towards a group of people in the front row, obviously fluent (there is no glossary in the program, though the printed script has two pages of terms and descriptions up front). In what felt almost like a private performance, these audience members were having the time of their lives. Whether if by design or not, it’s problematic when good jokes aren’t being shared. It’s part and parcel of the ways in which Bees & Honey, in spite of two fine central performances, fails to deliver what makes for a wholly satisfying experience.
Bees & Honey is at MCC Theatre Space, 511 W 52nd Street, NYC 10019 now through June 11th. For ticket information, please go to: https://mcctheater.org/tix/bees-honey/
Photos: Julieta Cervantes