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Review: Guess who's coming to dinner. 'One of the Good Ones,' an updated comedy of representation

Guess who’s coming to dinner at the home of a wealthy Latino family in Pasadena. A well-mannered, painstakingly progressive, sensitive-to-a-fault white dude.

Cue the comic mayhem in Gloria Calderón Kellett’s “One of the Good Ones,” which is having its world premiere at Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of Kimberly Senior.

The playwright turns the tables in this comedy of representation to reflect the difficulty America is still having in keeping up with society’s evolution. Calderón Kellett, who co-created the “One Day at a Time” reboot with Rita Moreno, is an experienced hand in updating comic material from a Latinx — make that Latine — point of view.

A theatrical comedy in the sitcom tradition of Norman Lear, who developed the original “One Day at a Time” series that launched in 1975, “One of the Good Ones” brings the generations into collision for laughs and social enlightenment. The squabbles of a Latine family take center stage in a show that emphasizes cultural difference only to reveal universal patterns and fond similarities.

Read more: 'Where are you really from?' A Latine landmark disrupts Pasadena Playhouse's 100-year history

Location, location, location, the old real estate maxim, also holds true for successful sitcoms that establish a vital connection between audiences and familiar workplace and domestic settings like the bar of "Cheers" or the Bunkers' living room in "All in the Family." The upscale home in “One of the Good Ones” might have been plucked out of a deluxe furniture catalog, so alluring is its architectural breadth and detail. (Tanya Orellana’s scenic design is lighted by Jaymi Lee Smith to accentuate the decor's expensive gleam.)

Everything about the production is drawn in sharp Technicolor, including the writing. Calderón Kellett doesn’t worry too much about subtlety. Exposition is doled out systematically to ensure that everyone is on the same page at the same time.

When the doorbell rings at the start of the play, Ilana (Lana Parrilla), a businesswoman and mother with a nervous determination to get every detail right, greets the flower delivery guy with information that seems aimed more for us than for him. “These are beautiful!” she tells Pedro (Santino Jimenez). “My daughter is introducing us to a boy for the first time.”

Unsure if Pedro speaks English, she stumbles into pidgin Spanish, apologizing for never having learned the language, despite being (as she emphatically notes) a Latina of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent.

“But my parents … mi padres … they told me to learn English,” she explains. “Because that is what they were told. This is America, speak English! Ingles!! No español.”

Pedro, who just wants her to sign for the delivery, is understandably bewildered. Theater audiences unaccustomed to drawing room comedies from a century ago that would begin with servants setting up the household conflicts before the main characters made their entrances, might also be confused by the directness of this narrative download.

Television has perhaps conditioned Calderón Kellett, who also created the Amazon Original series “With Love,” to story-board her plots with utmost clarity. From a playwriting standpoint, “One of the Good Ones” is not terribly sophisticated. But the play has set itself other work to do.

Ilana and husband Enrique (Carlos Gomez) are eager to meet the young man their 22-year-old daughter, Yoli (Isabella Gomez), has fallen for. When Ilana makes a reference to the “friend” that's coming to dinner, Yoli corrects her by calling him her “boyfriend.”

“Serious boyfriend,” she adds, raising the stakes for everyone.

Who is this mysterious Marcos? “He’s really cute and smart,” Yoli gushes. “Born in Mexico but his family came to the U.S. when he was 7. His dad works for the Dodgers.”

Sounds promising, but when Marcos arrives bearing a piñata and an expensive bottle of white wine as gifts, his appearance doesn’t quite match Yoli’s description. “You’re Marcos?” Enrique asks. Discombobulated, he can hardly contain his shock.

“I’m just going to say it," Enrique erupts in what threatens to become a cardiac event, "you’re a white guy.”

One cause of the confusion is Marcos' last name, which is Cruise, spelled with an “s” instead of Cruz, spelled with a “z.” Calderón Kellett feasts on these small yet consequential comic discrepancies, though she saves the biggest laughs for the clash of parents with traditionalist views and Gen Z reformers who want to politically reprogram them.

Yoli chides her father about his patriarchal attitude and takes her mother to task for avoiding difficult conversations. They, in turn, point out her flashes of immaturity and occasional hypocrisy. Yoli, for instance, cringes when her parents get frisky with each other, yet she expects her dad to be comfortable when she holds forth on her sex life.

These dynamics will be familiar to anyone who’s owned a television set in the last 75 years. (I learned the off-color meaning of "frisky" from the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days.") What distinguishes Calderón Kellett is the way she reanimates conventional comic material with Latine flavor. Like Yoli and Marcos, she too is engaged in reformation — in this case of theatergoers, who may not be familiar with the play’s cultural world or who may be not be accustomed to seeing themselves reflected on prominent stages.

This project is noble, though the author's reliance on old-school routines and hackneyed tropes makes the play seem rather creaky. Lear’s television comedies, as radical as they were conventional, had a lasting effect because they weren’t afraid to venture onto dangerous ground.

“One of the Good Ones” is more gently populist in its approach. The eagerness to arrive at reconciliation softens the underlying conflict. Serious issues are debated — the relationship of racial identity to citizenship and the link between language and culture — but the arguments remain safely on the surface.

Sentimentality is the solution for dramatists who don’t want to grapple too strenuously with their own questions. That said, audiences tend to prefer neat TV endings to life’s fuzzier resolutions. And no one at Sunday's laughter-filled opening seemed all that perturbed that reality was being cheated.

Parrilla commands the stage with stylish verve, though it might have been better for the play if she were directed against the grain of her character’s comic excesses. Instead of indulging Ilana’s control freak shtick, she might have supplemented the role with more of the maternal tenderness we catch only in stray glimpses. (Senior, who directed Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced" to ferocious effect, is content to ride the zaniness here.)

Carlos Gomez is the company’s secret weapon. He plays Enrique with such relaxed charm that the character's emotional roller-coaster from indulgent dad to paternal gladiator seems utterly and endearingly natural.

Isabella Gomez’s Yoli is a mercurial delight, though Calderón Kellett overplays the joke of her character’s political correctness. When Ilana criticizes herself, Yoli rushes to her defense: “You own your own PR firm. You are, like, this amazing businesswoman who has not only built an empire but also built generational wealth. You are your ancestors' wildest dreams." No performer could make this rhetoric seem realistic, but in quieter moments the actor hints at touchingly contradictory truths.

As Marcos, Nico Greetham is also saddled with an overload of wokeness. At one point after sounding like a moderator at a sensitivity training workshop, he apologizes for his “patronizing” tone — a remark that might be doing double duty as dramatic criticism. Yet Greetham has enough charisma to survive the stereotypical trap of his character and to make us care about the outcome of Marcos and Yoli’s love.

Pedro, who returns unexpectedly toward the end of the play, is nothing more than a comic device. Jimenez, to his credit, lends him passing humanity.

“One of the Good Ones” doesn’t transcend its sitcom limitations, but it does shine a light of representation while striving amicably to entertain.



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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.