Marga Gomez’s Latin Standards, a gleaming elegy for her father, the entertainer Willy Chevalier, doesn’t exactly contain any Latin standards. Though her father wrote many, Gomez is hardly the fan of music he was—nor the singer. No, she prefers the banter between songs, the too-brief moments of light wherein the artist emerges from the art. Latin Standards inverts the usual order of things, devoting its hour and change to preamble and context that accretes into a touching portrait of the man who inspired her to make art.
Given this formal conceit, Gomez’s overarching narrative has the loose, unstructured feel of standup comedy. She leaps back and forth between the story of her father’s career—and his, er, checkered personal life—and that of her own, which centers around a comedy show she ran in a San Francisco drag club. Her professional struggle was complemented by a strained relationship with her girlfriend, Gwyneth, who Gomez quips “was into fashion and whiteness—I mean wellness.” As whiteness consumed her romantic life, so too did gentrification overwhelm the Latino community that club called home. The comedy night ended, the club shut down. Gwyneth, we can presume, went on her merry way.
Gomez is an able performer, quick to quip yet unafraid to immerse herself in heartfelt flashback. In one daring sequence, she plays her father at an audition to serve as spokesman for Café El Pico, a Cuban coffee brand. A zesty raconteur, Chevalier tells a winding shaggy dog tale pockmarked with PG-13 content, devotedly bashing Café El Pico’s competitor. At the end, his image appears on a projector screen: It’s a still from the campaign he landed. Later she reenacts the moment when she admitted she didn’t want to go to medical school; she wanted instead to be a performer, just like him. Considering what we’ve already learned about the challenges she faced as an artist—the uncertainty and isolation, the perpetual Sisyphean quest to climb every next rung—the moment takes on additional poignancy.
But as with any piece of solo dramatic memoir, Latin Standards begs the question: How much more poignancy would this story have, were it given the craft and shape of a more straightforward play? In the absence of narrative structure, the threshold for emotional payoff climbs higher and higher. And though Chevalier is clearly a vivid character in Gomez’s memory, he is only occasionally vivid in our experience of it. So when she tells us toward the end that she has learned to “see he was beautiful always, with all his mistakes,” the conclusion rings hollow. We haven’t learned to see that he was beautiful in spite of his flaws. We have only seen the metadata, the log line for a story that exists outside the narrow lens of memory. It is certainly possible for discrete anecdotes to accrue into a moving emotional journey—I’m thinking of Will Eno’s monologues, for one—and Latin Standards comes close. But chronology is not equivalent to story; that events are thematically related does not make them plot. All told, Latin Standards is an engaging, lively cabaret. What’s missing is the narrative heft to make each scene essential to the whole.