At the beginning of San Francisco-based playwright Octavio Solis’ riveting new drama, “Se Llama Cristina,” premiering at Magic Theatre, a couple is slumped in a drug-induced stupor at a Formica table in a bare, seedy room.
Surfacing, they’re so wrecked they don’t even know their own names, let alone where they are and why, and who the other person is. The man is horrified to see a needle sticking out of his own arm and drug paraphernalia on the table.
“I never shoot up!” he declares.
When they notice a large crib and find that it holds nothing but a chicken drumstick, it’s an absurdly funny moment, reflecting the way that Solis’ plays can so deftly mix the comic and the tragic.
But the two characters are far from amused. Where is the baby, they wonder. Is there a baby? The stakes are raised.
Over the course of an intermissionless 80 or so minutes, Mike and Vespa — or maybe their names are Miguel and Vesta, or Mickey and Vera — piece together their individual and joint backstories, enacting the various scenarios that led them to this desperate place. The question of the missing baby lingers.
A menacing figure from the woman’s past (a wonderfully sadistic Rod Gnapp) makes occasional, frighteningly sudden appearances.
A fragmented, partly surreal chronology like this could conceivably distance us from the characters. But design elements, such as Burke Brown’s varied lighting, help clarify things.
Also there’s the fact that the couple is just as confused as we are and discovering the various truths at the same rate as we are.
Most importantly, Sean San Jose and Sarah Nina Hayon, under Loretta Greco’s taut direction, so thoroughly inhabit the troubled pair that their dilemma becomes ours.
Loaded with heavy baggage from their pasts, yet drawn together in ways that are palpably loving and caring, these two are infinitely, touchingly tough and vulnerable. (So too is Karina Gutierrez in a smaller role.)
And the ensemble handles with ease Solis’ language, a smooth-flowing, unpretentious blend of the poetic and the profane.
At its center, “Se Llama Cristina” depicts the unending struggle to understand and accept nothing more or less than parenthood. That the playwright can turn that existential struggle into a story like this — so extreme, so raw — speaks to his extraordinary imagination and his willingness to peer unblinkingly into the depths of the human heart.
Se Llama Cristina: Presented by Magic Theatre
- Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
- When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 17
- Tickets: $22 to $62
- Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org