Growing Up Gonzales – The Review

BY Jonathan Ullman (@gogoPatienceCnP)

Growing Up Gonzalez - Luis Anthony Ramos

When the character of Johnny Gonzales enters the set of his dead brother Cisco’s apartment to clean it out in the opening moments of Growing Up Gonzales, you’d think you’re in for a night of melancholia and introspection at the theatre. But you’d be wrong. Growing Up Gonzales, starring Luis Antonio Ramos in the dual roles of Johnny and his brother Cisco, is at turns riotously funny and emotionally poignant.

The story, expertly crafted by Felix Rojas, flashes back with ease to the Gonzales brothers growing up in 1970’s Bronx. When Johnny stumbles upon Cisco’s notebooks in the apartment, he discovers that not only was his younger brother an expert storyteller, but there was more that met the eye in the slow and shy Cisco. Johnny relives his youth through Cisco’s eyes, the adventures of visiting their native Puerto Rico, an uncle’s funeral with all the relatives and the uncle’s mistress, a trip to a whorehouse, and the untimely death of their father, an event that forever bonded the brothers and defined their relationship. These anecdotes serve not so much as a discovery of Johnny’s Nuyorican roots but rather an affirmation for this proud Puerto Rican man.

As brothers Johnny and Cisco, as well as some colorful family members, Ramos gives a master class in acting, brilliantly shifting from one character to the next. The thing about a one-man show is that so often they tend to feel that they can go on forever. Growing Up Gonzales is a delightful exception. The direction by Candido Tirado takes expert advantage of the limited stage space by expanding the action well outside the confines of Cisco’s apartment. It is breezily paced at under 2 hours, including a brief intermission, and the technical contributions to the play are all top notch. But what really sets this play apart is the commanding presence of veteran actor Ramos in a physically and emotionally challenging role. He magically shifts from roaring comedy to moving tragedy as effortlessly as he does in shifting roles from one brother to the other. Indeed, there was more than one moment when the actor and audience collectively paused to catch their breath. It’s simply that kind of a night in the theatre and Ramos is that kind of an actor.

Growing Up Gonzales, now playing Thursdays through Sundays at the Poets Den Theatre, 309 East 108th St. in East Harlem until the end of November.

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Related: Letters to Uptown: Jonathan Ullman

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