With its big clue of a title and its two characters named Joe and Jose, one expects “Neighbors: A Fair Trade Agreement” to be an allegory about the political relationship between Mexico and the United States. But Bernardo Cubria’s new play, running through October 7 at INTAR Theater, is also a broad comedy about the ways Americans and Mexicans perceive one another – or, more precisely, how we misperceive each other.
The play achieves this by a clever trafficking in what may seem at first like uncomfortable stereotyping. Jose (Gerardo Rodriguez) is a poor, earthy Mexican who drinks too much, and curses even more, and sings Spanish songs loudly while he lazily fiddles with a half-broken lawnmower in front of his shack on one side of a creek. On the other side of the creek, Joe (Andrew Blair) is a rich, reserved American who reads the newspaper while lounging in his pajamas on the lawn outside his mansion, occasionally listening to the Beach Boys and reciting Deepak Chopra’s Affirmations.
The stereotypes are deliberately clownish (driven home by Raul Abrego’s cartoonish set), and the playwright has fun with them. At one point, Joe objects to Jose stereotyping him. “If I get annoyed by one of your stupid jokes, you say all gringos are sensitive,” Joe says indignantly to Jose. “But maybe it’s not about ‘gringos,’ maybe it’s just me. Maybe sometimes people have their own personal opinions that have nothing to do with race or culture.”
Jose laughs. “That’s such a pinche Gringo thing to say.”
Despite the deliberate stereotyping, the depiction of Joe and Jose does not cause offense, in part because specific biographical details in the script and the two actors’ anchored performances turn them into credible characters, and in part because “Neighbors” gives us solid if amusing insight into what feels like some genuine cultural differences between the two nationalities. At one point, reacting with well-meaning generosity to Jose’s distress over his broken lawnmower and general state of impoverishment, Joe gives him a gift of $1,000. Jose goes out and spends $200 of it on a stereo. Joe is aghast, though he politely describes himself simply as “confused…It’s just not a very good long-term solution.”
“Yesterday I was crying in front of you and today I’m singing,” Jose replies. “That seems like a solution.”
While arguing over the stereo and their respective attitudes toward money (Jose: “You love money…”/Joe: “I just don’t like waste….”/Jose: “You need to go to Monies Anonymous.”), Joe discovers “energy” (presumably oil) on Jose’s property. Joe makes a deal with Jose to provide the elaborate machinery to extract.
Jose: “You and I, we’re going be good for each other.”
Jose:́ “I get you drunk, you show me how to make a lot of money.”
Their comity soon evaporates. “Neighbors” becomes the political allegory we’ve expected all along, with a pointed critique of American exploitation and indifference, unsubtle references to fences and Donald Trump, and the two literally wrestling with one another, comically obvious symbols of two nations who are supposed to be allies.
It’s important to point out that playwright Cubria, who is identifying himself as Mexican (the birthplace of his parents) but grew up in Houston, also establishes some similarities between the two cultures in an astute way: Whenever Joe recites an American aphorism, Jose offers its Mexican equivalent.
“Neighbors: A Fair Trade Agreement” is on stage at INTAR Theater through October 7, 2017.