The hilarious and ruthless world premiere of “The Fundamentals” asks the audience how far are you willing to go to get ahead.
This latest play by Erika Sheffer, commissioned by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, not only takes a peak into what it’s like to work in a boutique hotel but the struggles of being a minority trying to climb the corporate ladder. Milie, played by Alana Arenas, is a room attendant, mother, daughter of immigrants, and college dropout who wants to become a manager at the hotel. She works in the same hotel as her husband Lorenzo, played by Armando Riesco, who wants nothing more than to stop being a custodial engineer and start his own business. The play mostly takes place in the basement where Millie’s lovable boss Abe, played by Alan Wilder, also works and where Stellan the new front desk clerk, played by Caroline Neff, and Eliza the property manager, played by Audrey Francis, come to stir things up.
The easiest comparison to make to “The Fundamentals” is Jennifer Lopez’s feature film “Maid in Manhattan,” another story about an undervalued hotel employee who has been looked over for promotions because of her ethnicity and education level. However, Jennifer Lopez never sells you the part of the undervalued employee compared to the spectacular acting of Alena Arenas. Millie would be the supporting character in any other production as Arenas plays her as the friend you wish you’d have—always willing to lend a hand and take over a job you hate doing—but she also adds depth with the help of Sheffer’s words. Arenas and Shefffer shine a light on the fact that no matter your work ethic, dedication, and warm demeanor you can easily be passed up for advancement based on your ethnicity, age, and education. Sheffer takes it to that next level in showing Millie’s ruthless breaking point, and while most can agree in its brutality it is up to the audience to decided whether it’s right or wrong.
A pleasant surprise in the production is Riesco’s portrayal of Lorenzo. Being Cuban, seeing Lorenzo on stage transported me to all the fellow Latin Caribbean friends I grew up with. Full of dreams no matter how absurd, full of love towards those closest to them without thinking about how they’re actions might hurt them, full of cynicism towards power structures, full of disregard for traditional career paths, and full of odd ticks like putting their gold chains in their mouth as a security blanket when in a vulnerable situation. Lorenzo plays the other side of the immigrant child trying to make it in America. Millie is the immigrant child who has seen too many peers fail at their dreams and believes doing the safe thing is the adult way. Lorenzo believes being an adult doesn’t mean you still can’t dream, and he ignores all the failures and only needs one example of a wild dream succeeding for him to believe he can do the same and do it better. Riesco taps into that wild, Hispanic entrepreneurial spirit that lives in so many immigrants.
Being an immigrant means fusing your customs and attitudes with those of your new country and struggling with which ones to leave behind and which new ones to take on. How do you not abandon your principles and still look yourself in the mirror while trying to survive at the same time?
“The Fudamentals” runs until Dec. 23 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. For tickets and more information visit steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/seasons/2016-17/fundamentals.