From 1976 to 1983, Argentine political imprisonment was as wholesale as the military's civil presence under junta strongman Jorge Videla. As many as 30,000 detainees died or "disappeared" in the country's so-called Dirty War; some were reportedly thrown to their deaths over shark-infested waters after being promised their freedom.
Lore has it that a pregnant woman met that fate simply because she was homely and soldiers felt the kid would inherit her looks.
That unsettling little morsel may seem off point for a story about two men and their dubious love affair, but it does weigh into the thrust of a current production at the 6th@Penn Theatre.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is theoretically set in that place and time, and the procedure for matching cellmates is as bewildering as Videla's suspicion of his countrymen. Molina, a middle-aged, flaming-gay window dresser jailed for lewd conduct with a minor, has been paired with Valentin, a young and macho Marxist revolutionary consumed with the prospects of the junta's collapse and the fall of the upper class.
Valentin is Oscar Madison to Molina's Felix Unger. While the former (Tijuana native Giancarlo Ruiz) steeps himself in insurrectionist literature and regret over his abandonment of a bourgeoisie woman, prissy Molina (Douglas Lay) scans women's magazines and loses himself in memories of movies and the opera. Cat People is his fave flick. He regales an amused Valentin with the plot, but with a panther's treachery. The point is to befriend Valentin to the extent he'll spill the beans on his group's whereabouts so Molina can snitch to his keepers.
The junta itself is the play's third character. At its core, the regime is surely offended by Molina's sexual orientation; yet it caters to his wishes for extra food and his prospects for freedom in order to pursue its goal.
But the authorities, and the men themselves, don't anticipate the love bond that eventuates between the two. Casual favors and small talk escalate into physical interplay, culminating in a homosexual encounter. The prisoners have essentially swapped roles-and the dotty conclusion yields the "spider woman" moniker. (The female black widow comes to mind-the venomous gender of the species that occasionally offs her boyfriend after mating.)
Playwright Manuel Puig adapted the play from his successful novel, first published in Spain in 1976 as a current-events piece. The script would later morph into a musical and a movie starring the late Raul Julia, generating a fair share of acclaim. The occasionally too-sharp character transitions do little to dampen the critical huzzahs and, despite being fraught with volatility, the play sports a steady flow of action and an exceptionally legato dialogue.
Problem though: that was 1976, and this, for better or worse, is 2004. Our national consciousness is suddenly rife with gay-related controversies; against this backdrop, Spider Woman almost seems manipulative, employing yet another gay dalliance ad nauseam in the interest of advancing a story about camaraderie. Director Doug Hoehn handles the scene discreetly (although the program correctly warns of the material's explicitness), and he coaxes a couple good performances from Ruiz and Lay (the latter, however, does little to physically reflect his ulterior motives in the later scenes).
No matter. This Kiss is excessively wet and sloppy, like that of a party crasher whose opportunism follows him to every soirée in spite of himself.
6th@Penn is as fine a black-box environment as you'll find in this region. It's enjoyed a string of successes lately, and managing artistic director Dale Morris (who produced this show) busts his butt to that end.
Life, however, has abruptly caught up with this play. For all its technical prowess and dialogic mastery, the thing features sexual activity that today seems strident and contrived. It's been rendered mostly untenable in our time and culture, its serviceable message of compassion faded amid the queenly gimmickry of the breathtakingly stupid Will and Grace.
This review is based on the performance of March 14. Kiss of the Spider Woman runs through March 31 at the 6th@Penn Theatre. $15-$20. 619-688-9210.