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Sweet 15 (Quinceañera), by Rick Najera San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Rick Najera, Alma Martinez, Nina Brissey, Yvonne Delarosa, Jose Yenque, Carlo D'Amore, Fernando Vega; scenic design, Ron Ranson; costumes, Paloma H. Young; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Tom Jones Playing through December 16; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, by Kathryn Walat Moxie Theatre, Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn; cast: Nicole Monet, Joseph Dionisio, Jessie Allen Moore, Tim Parker, Luke Marinkovich; scenic and lighting design, Mia Bane; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; sound, Liv Kellgren Playing through December 16; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000. For dates and times, click here:

In Latino culture a quinceañera is a coming-out party for 15-year-old girls, "like Christmas and birthdays and Miss America pageants rolled into one," says a character in Rick Najera's Sweet 15. As with debutante balls, they're often in competition with each other, costing anywhere from $5000 to "the sky's the limit." Why age 15? It's a year earlier than "the skinny gringas, so they can't get all the good men."

Ten years ago, to finance his daughter Sonora's quince, Eddy Valderama drove a contraband-filled truck for El Jefe's Tijuana cartel. He botched the job, bad, and has spent the past decade hiding out in Mexico. Now he wants to give her a belated party -- have "everything the way it should have been" -- even if it means coming back to the States and risking his life.

Eddy returns to San Diego like Rip Van Winkle. Life has gone on. Sonora graduated from SDSU and is headed to Stanford Law. Only two things haven't changed. Her grandmother's feisty as ever (and hey: she never slugged that priest; just "bitch-slapped him" is all). And rumors still abound about Eddy's ties to organized crime. Asked if he was connected, Sonora, who adored him, replies, "There was nothing organized about my father."

A local native, Najera has set Sweet 15 in San Diego and packs the piece with references, from Triple Espresso's tenure to the Scripps Aviary at Balboa Park. The more you know about the area, the more you'll appreciate his love of San Diego, faults and all. They also help the script, which has faults aplenty, keep going.

Sweet 15 has a much better setup than punchline. Will Sonora, who double-majored in women's studies and Chicana studies at SDSU, agree to a ritual she now finds sexist, patriarchal, and patronizing? Will the grandmother put down her pepper sprayer and embrace the idea -- and her son-in-law? Will El Jefe make a lethal cameo? (Those two black Escalades across the street? Trust me: they aren't the Prize Patrol.)

Act One has humor and tension. Act Two begins with more -- since the planner spent the money and must create from nothing -- but soon resembles watching air leave a balloon. The quince has an audience-participation dance number. So, the planner, a flamboyant and funny Carlo D'Amore, must select five couples from the audience, rehearse them, send them back to their seats, then have them return later to perform. As a result, during much of the second act, time comes close to standing still.

Along with a sharp-eyed, funny view of San Diego, the first act promises an exploration of families, cultural rituals, and, most of all, second chances. And Act Two begs for strong, character-driven comedy and resolution. Instead it becomes ad lib- and situation-driven. The script dwindles and ties up loose ends with sitcom facility.

The cast gives things a go, especially Fernando Vega as Fernando Cahuenga, a transgender lounge lizard who sings like the immortal "Juan Gabriel"; Carlo D'Amore, who, along with the planner, scores as Father John, a fisher of men -- and fish, and as Freddy, a homeless man "drug-free for almost an hour"; and Alma Martinez, as grandmother Chata Gomez. She always and adamantly knows what she wants, until she changes her mind.

***

Victoria Martin is the "third most popular sophomore" at Longwood H.S. Her boyfriend, Scott, is a "totally varsity first string" basketball star. So when the school's all-male math team needs a token woman, leave her out. No way she'll join that "black hole" in the social order! The two most popular girls, both named Jen, would disown her. And even though Victoria's a closet math whiz and uses pi as a soul-steadying mantra, she swears, "I'm SO not doing math team, OKAY?"

Wrong. She joins and not only likes it but falls in love, in the process shaking up her fellow squad members, into whose ordered, mathematical lives intrude irrational, splooey emotions. Victoria gets shook up too. After all, what would Jen and Jen think if she traded high school's version of having it all for hanging out with a quartet of loser "brainiacs"? How dare she use her mind! That's, like, SUBVERSIVE!

Kathryn Walat has such an insightful feel for the epic emotions of teenagers -- each moment being either world history's happiest, or Homer's Iliad -- her Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen should come with a warning: "This play will evoke your high school years; resistance is futile."

Moxie Theatre and director Jennifer Eve Thorn conjure a fun, upbeat story about embracing one's most heartfelt choices. Performing on Mia Bane's multi-use set (including a florid pink bedroom) and wearing her spot-on costumes, Nicole Monet traces Victoria's growing awareness in fine fashion. She also handles her lines -- including her generation's adoration of the adverb -- as if she, like, totally wrote them.

Using young actors on a local main-stage could be a risk. Not so at Moxie. The game cast had few slip-ups, when I saw the show, and offered a true find. Luke Marinkovich played Jimmy, the ungainly frosh math whiz, with an instinctive sense of where things are, onstage, at every point. In monologues, his vulnerability built a rich rapport with the audience, as if saying, "This is high school -- remember? -- when Blue Mondays looked like they'd never go away."

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