I hate postmodernism!” screams Hanan Mashalani, the cute, pale, curly-haired, wannabe pop singer star of Learn to Be Latina, a new farce by San Francisco playwright Enrique Urueta. It’s the most comically self-ironic line in a play that’s postmodern enough to make Fredric Jameson green with envy. Indeed, no surface goes unruptured in this story of a woman’s quest for stardom. Hanan (played by Carlye Pollack in a new Impact Theatre production) tries to get discovered the old-fashioned way, by sending a demo to a record label (F.A.D.) and hoping for the best.
The problem, according to the F.A.D. A&R reps, is Hanan’s background. Born to immigrants from Beirut, she’s a scion of a completely unmarketable ethnic lineage, they say. They make that case through a PowerPoint presentation that shows two pop divas who managed to subsume their Lebanese identity: Salma Hayek and Shakira. In both cases, the singers (born in Mexico and Colombia, respectively), branded themselves as “pura Latina.” If it worked for them, said F.A.D. ethnicity consultant Mary O’Malley (Melanie Salazar Case), why not try it on a pura non-Latina like Hanan? Their solution: Add an accent to change “Hanan” to “Hanán.” Give her a long, flat, dark-brown weave, and a lot of gaudy gold jewelry. Force her to learn pidgin Spanish, eat taco salads in public, and jockey for space in Latina magazine. And the real clincher: Steal a dance track from Eighties-era one-hit-wonder La Juana, and turn it into Hanán’s break-out single.
Such tactics might seem a little far-fetched, even for an era when anyone can purchase his next identity at the nearest postmodern outlet store. But director Mary Guzmán and the cast at Impact Theatre manage to keep the joke going for a full act-and-a-half. As Hanán’s record sales soar, she enters a world of hyper-vain female celebrities, each with a carefully tailored stage persona. She poses for magazine covers and grants talk show interviews, reciting a fake bio about coming to Boston by way of Buenos Aires. In the process, she finds herself — not as a Latina or a Lebanese American, but as a lesbian.
Therein lies the real story. For all its humor about racial stereotypes and the constructedness of identity, Learn to Be Latina is actually a coming-out narrative. Hanán falls for Blanca (Marlet Martinez), the high-heeled, voluptuous “office bitch” who spends her days wiping tables with Pledge and tutoring the pop singer in Latina 101. That plot twist allows Impact to use all the elements that have become its stock-in-trade: hot lesbian make-out scenes, jokes about strap-ons and Saran Wrap, femme-on-femme seduction. Within minutes of their first encounter, it becomes clear that everyone in the play is a closeted something-or-other. A&R reps Bill (Jon Nagel) and Will (Andrew Calabrese) are constantly running off to use the glory hole in the men’s restroom. Their cohort Jill (Emily Rosenthal) is a repressed fascist with designs on taking over the company. O’Malley is not what she seems.
It took a little stroke of genius for Urueta to render the story of a closeted gay relationship in burlesque form. He and Guzmán treat the Blanca-Hanán romance as more than just an office tryst. In fact, it’s the real meat of the play. But it’s rendered in a smart, non-traditional way that avoids the obvious pitfalls of coming-out stories. Those who cotton to the political undertones can appreciate the bubbly soundtrack — a mix of T.I., Missy Elliot, Beyoncé, and several Top-40 Latin hits — or the constant pop culture references. Hanán cites Tiffany as an early fount of inspiration. She and Blanca bond over shared adoration for the cartoon character Jem, another pop star with an alter ego. The layers of pastiche seem endless.
Impact specializes in self-consciously hip plays with obscene humor, and Learn to Be Latina could be the gold standard. Sock puppets pop through glory holes; Will does the “Single Ladies” routine in a leotard; O’Malley uses the words “queef,” “cunt,” and “cuca.” Will, Bill, and Jill speak with a constant barrage of clichés (“Tell us once more, with feeling,” Jill says, when Hanan first presents herself to the label). The humor is so sharp and aggressive that it’s actually a bit exhausting over the span of two hours — we’re subjected to punch line after punch line, with no respite. It takes a clever group of actors to carry that type of script, and fortunately, this cast rises to the occasion. Pollack and Martinez have genuine chemistry, and the Nagel-Calabrese-Rosenthal trifecta helps characterize the pura evil that is F.A.D. But it’s Case who steals the show as Mary O’Malley, an ethnicity consultant with hipster glasses and dominatrix boots. Colombian American and bilingual in real life, she’ll invent a Spanish proverb on the spot, and say it in a perfect accent. Her favorite? “Las buenas Latinas no comen cuca.”