Blog Review: ATC Closes Season With World Premiere of HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN SON

Review: ATC Closes Season With World Premiere of HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN SON

Christopher Oscar Pena delivers a riveting new play at Arizona Theatre Company

by Robert Encila-Celdran. Originally published on

Occasionally a critic comes across a production that impairs his sense of objectivity. Indeed I’m guilty as chris peña’s play hits a little too close to home.

how to make an American Son is a provocative immigration story, an eloquent tale of American exceptionalism turned dark and sullen. The playwright transforms a seemingly innocuous sit-com into a universal drama about race and sexuality, fueling a combustible mix of prejudice and cultural dominance.

ATC’s final production of the season leaves no stone unturned as it reaffirms its mission to create a relevant incubator of new works. What was fringe is now mainstream, evinced by a season of intrepid experiments and capped by a world premiere of a play that raises an urgent conversation beyond the confines of government policy. AMERICAN SON is a valiant attempt to humanize a hot-button issue too often relegated to partisan quibbles.

While the story speaks to all of us, chris peña’s thesis reveals a conflicting assortment of realities all too familiar to those who braved borders and traversed oceans for a mythical American Dream.

I’m inclined to frame this from a personal perspective.

I immigrated to the United States from my native Philippines as a teenager. Armed with ambition and a serviceable command of the English language, I was flushed with pride in my first job as a grocery bagger in a local supermarket. Ingrained in my third-world mindset was a romantic conviction that America was here to help me steer a bright future from the ground up.

She did not disappoint. I managed to navigate a cost-free college education, duly recognized and rewarded for my talent and industrious nature. To this day my familial roots run deep, but I’d be lying if decades of assimilation haven’t altered my sense of identity, somehow or other.

Though I cleave to the humble values of my forebears, I’m conscious of the insidious entitlement that comes from a “naturalized” status. It begets a love-hate affair as one learns to manage the tension between acquired privilege and a hyper-capitalist system that perpetuates the delusion of ascendancy.

In my narrative, I raised a daughter instead of a son. It’s my enormous blessing that a teenage girl would spare me the requisite cultural homilies by insisting I take her to the motherland to dig up her roots. Though I wouldn’t recommend sacrificing a career to supervise a child’s education overseas, I’m convinced today that four years of integration shaped the way she now looks at the world: a grateful young adult with a grand appreciation for her origins.

I share this anecdote to punctuate Mr. Peña’s willfully ambiguous premise. HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN SON sheds light on a father’s charge to integrate a child into a culture utterly different from which he emerged. It’s an exacting challenge every hard-working immigrant must embrace in the effort to sustain a dual cultural identity. After all, a child’s constitution reflects the delicate balance between a caregiver’s edifying set of values and the pluralistic backdrop outside his immediate home. It’s true for anyone regardless of cultural background, but downright imperative to a parent who wants a child to have the best of both worlds.

Mando is a vintage self-made immigrant whose hard work and ambition accounts for his remarkable rise from a janitor to the CEO of a cleaning empire. Born and raised in Honduras, he retains his humble disposition even as he operates from a position of power, training entry-level employees as he negotiates massive accounts with corporate clients. Orlando is his teenage son – impetuous, restless, and whip-smart. At 16 years old, he is openly gay and has the great fortune of having two parents who accept him fully and without condition (except that his mother would prefer a Latino for his boyfriend).

Orlando suffers from an invisible handicap: He is heedless to his father’s hard work and ambition, which is the very reason for the privilege he now enjoys. He goes to an elite private school and has the audacity to shop online with his father’s credit card.

It’s clear that Mando is guilty of enabling Orlando’s entitlement, though it’s hard to fault him for sparing his son any semblance of hardship, about which he knows all too well. When he grounds Orlando as a punishment, we appreciate his effort to discipline the boy with love and dignity. But he’s always up against external forces he can’t grasp. Aye, there’s the rub.

Gabriel Marin is an excellent Mando. He’s a tender, avuncular elder who bears a deep sense of fairness in the face of a ruthless business grind. Orlando is played with a breathtaking tenacity by Francisco Javier Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s Orlando brims with unfettered self-importance, at least until we encounter a vulnerable moment where he falls for the undocumented Rafael, played with singular restraint by Alexander Flores. Cristela Alonzo exhibits an impressive range as Mercedes, Mando’s trusted general manager. Completing this sterling ensemble are Eddie Boroevich and Patrick Weber, a father-and-son team absorbed in wealth and white privilege.

A brisk pace is indispensable here, especially as we’re made to comprehend Orlando’s manic impulses. Kimberly Senior, who directed Broadway’s DISGRACED, shapes these scenes with customary aplomb, thrusting Pena’s crisp dialogue with theatrical fury and locating the appropriate silences for delicate impact. It’s masterful work.

With due respect to each character arc, I’m spoiling for the unwritten scene where Mando, as our central figure, provides a Job-inspired catharsis of losing everything he’d worked for. Instead we receive that accounting from Mercedes, who lays it all out as we’re made to assume that all was gone and the end was nigh. In the aftermath of her timely purge, we fast-forward to an abrupt, albeit tender, epilogue where father and son assure each other everything will be fine. Whether true or not, your guess is as good as mine.

While vacuous debates are brewing about Critical Race Theory, and noxious mobs are chanting Don’t Say Gay, Chris Pena‘s play reminds us that America is not only a work in progress, but a fragile ship at risk of capsizing. Cries of Replacement Theory are a clear sign of America’s Potemkin meritocracy, where the game is rigged against the perceived minority for the benefit of existing power brokers.

The game has to change and we had best buckle up for a rough ride.