Hilary Bettis puts five human faces on a national disgrace that most New York theatergoers only read about or see in news snippets on MSNBC.
A family living in Tucson, Arizona, has a major problem: The father and his two teenage children are American citizens; the mother and her adult son are immigrants without documentation. That mother, Anita, is now living in Nogales, Mexico, only 72 miles away but unable to see her family. Her son Christian is in the process of replicating her ordeal: getting married to an American, having kids in the United States and living in fear of being deported. Making his situation even worse than his mother’s, Christian has been raised from infancy in the U.S. and doesn’t speak Spanish. “72 Miles to Go…” opened Tuesday at the Roundabout’s Off Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre.
Bettis’ play spans a period in time, from 2008 to 2016, when a young immigrant like Christian might have had some hope to receive a work permit through DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Scene after scene tells the rapidly disintegrating story of unfulfilled and lost dreams, each vignette leading to a waking nightmare. Some of these events are wrenching, like the false alarm when Christian (Bobby Moreno) fears being arrested in his family’s home or the news of the very real arrest of the father, Billy (Triney Sandoval), or the public meltdown the daughter, Eva (Jacqueline Guillen), experiences during her high school commencement speech. Other moments are equally disturbing but so commonplace they’ve been ironed into the fabric of this family’s life, like Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez) being in constant contact with her husband and children through cellphone calls. We hear Ramirez’s voice throughout “72 Miles,” but don’t see the actor until the final scenes set in Nogales, Mexico.
Around these big dramatic moments, Bettis attempts to create a veneer of mundane normalcy. The teenage son, Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), adopts a pet turtle that his sister says they can’t afford to feed. Eva has a disappointing night at her high school prom. Christian complains about repeatedly reading “The Night Before Christmas” to his kids. Anita’s voicemail greeting is sticky with motherly advice. Billy is a lousy cook (way too much mayonnaise and salt) and can’t stop cracking equally lousy dad jokes. Bettis begins a scene with one of these homey touches that telegraph “life goes on.” They also give “72 Miles” a sitcom feel. The Billy character and Sandoval’s performance especially come off as made for network TV.
We never have to wait long to get back to the crisis at hand, but the playwright’s attempts at radical contrast — easy laughs that quickly turn into rage, tears, fear — becomes a stylistic tic from overuse. The scenes don’t build — many are set months apart — so much as start over with each new cheery kickoff.
Most scenes in this 90-minute play don’t run over 10 minutes, which translates into a cute opening, a bombshell, a blackout. Both Christian and Aaron (Alvarez makes an astounding transition as his character ages) have conflicts with Billy that reverberate in scenes to come, and yet the initial break in these two relationships isn’t adequately dramatized. A scene’s resolution is often left to be played out between scenes.
Jo Bonney’s direction emphasizes the play’s episodic nature and sitcom humor. There are some unnecessary detours taken, but Bettis’ big moments remain devastating to watch.