Wendy Waddell, Anton Mabey, Dani Millan in Lesson 443 at Moxie Theatre.
  • Wendy Waddell, Anton Mabey, Dani Millan in Lesson 443 at Moxie Theatre.
  • Image by J.T. MacMillan
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Lesson 443

  • Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
  • $20 - $27

Tatiana Suarez-Pico’s new play is either a drama sabotaged by comedy, or vice versa. When the play builds to an emotional moment, a joke undercuts it. And when a scene starts out funny, things take a turn for the serious, for a while. In either case, a sitcom-like urge to entertain gets in the way.

Cari Gonzalez is “14 going on 44.” To give her life, Cari’s cancer-riddled mother, Maggie, chose death. She refused to chemo her womb. Cari went to Mexico, where she learned English with a thick Spanish accent (the play was originally called “Anatomy of an Accent”). Now she lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her accent makes her “stick out like a sore thumb” at school and she feels “like a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit.”

(The dialogue’s cliché rich; there’s also “people are never what you think they are” and “time to put the past behind”).

Cari’s smothering father, Manny, wants to shield her from the world, represented by R, her Gothic punk boyfriend Riley, whose thick black eyeliner and orange rooster-comb haircut strike dread in Manny. He’d be even more horrified if he knew that Cari and R have ventured far beyond his control.

With two exceptions, the play’s a formulaic, coming of age piece. Like the dialogue, the situations are familiar, the arguments predictable, the conclusion inevitable.

The exceptions give the play some interest. Accents are — or should be — second nature to most Californians. But in Columbus, Ohio, they can label you as un-whitebread. At one point Cari says “pointing out an accent means you already have made 40 assumptions about the speaker.” Cari wants to sound “like a newscaster.”

Dani Millan and Paul Araujo in 443 Lessons at Moxie Theatre

At Moxie, Natalie Khuen’s set puts Cari’s bedroom, stage right, and the modestly appointed living room, left. The set has an unfinished look, which supports the play’ theme, though having the walls slanting off kilter’s become a designer’s cliché.

In the bedroom, the ghost of Cari’s mother gives her a seminar on how to live (“Lesson 440: never wish out loud”). While the other characters don’t venture far beyond stock, Maggie evolves from a seemingly benevolent spirit to a beyond the grave avenger who will “never let go.” The play builds, slowly, to a confrontation between the ghost and her unfaithful husband. The resolution, however, is swift and facile.

Directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn, the Moxie production is competent. Paul Araujo gives Manny dimensions the script lacks. Anton Mabey does what he can with the passive punk rocker, R, though he needs to assert more when the time comes. As Cari, young Daniela Millan makes an impressive debut. She’s emotionally alert with good timing and presence, but her deliveries could use more variety.

Wendy Waddell has fine moments as Maggie, who shifts from an apparently benevolent, ghostly mother-figure to the “monster that doesn’t exist.” Waddell also plays Maggie’s twin sister, Lottie, who functions more as a plot device than a character.

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