The red flags come early, and hard and fast, in “The Displaced,” Chicago playwright Isaac Gómez’s wildly entertaining two-hander now in a top-notch regional premiere at Crowded Fire Theater:
In the top-floor apartment of a slightly distressed inner-city building, into which a twentysomething couple has just recently moved, the roar of an elevated train rattles the room.
Then a book falls off the shelf.
And things drop from the wall.
And the kitchen sink faucet just won’t work (until it does, in an unspeakably awful way).
And so on, including loud music from … somewhere, and a series of putrid smells and more.
Yes, it’s a horror story, but Gómez, fooling around with the usual tropes of horror stories — blissful newlyweds move into a house that turns out to be haunted — has a purpose behind his playfulness.
Lev, a Black man (Troy Rockett), and Marísa (Jordan Maria Don), a Latina, are not married. They’re in love, yes, but nor are they exactly blissful. They have issues concerning their differing racial identities, and Marísa has certain suspicions about Lev based on his past behavior, or perhaps on her own insecurity.
As it turns out, the apartment they’re moving into was previously inhabited by a Latinx family that could no longer afford to live in this gentrifying neighborhood. Lev feels bad about the implications of the situation, but Marísa, complacent, shrugs. She says she’s a “different kind of Mexican” from the previous tenants. Uh-oh.
For a good portion of the 90-minute play, personal and social conflicts between the lovers ebb and flow. Marísa’s prickly, Lev is anxious to placate her, both are a bit secretive. But as more and more of their surroundings startle them — lights go out, Lev can’t find the fuse box in the attic, their Alexa seems to have a mind of its own, everything’s malfunctioning — Marísa becomes increasingly unhinged. “This isn’t real!” she mutters repeatedly to herself.
Everything works beautifully in this neat little play, from the detailed set by Carlos Aceves, with its faded brick walls and the pull-down ladder that leads to the attic, to the perfectly timed spookiness of inanimate objects misbehaving (by Devon LaBelle), to Stephanie Anne Johnson’s sputtering lights and Christopher Sauceda’s unnerving sound design.
And, as helmed by Crowded Fire artistic director Mina Morita and associate director Karina Gutiérrez with careful attention to the nuances of emotional transitions, the two actors are utterly convincing every moment. Whether they’re arguing, tickling each other to the pint of hysteria, kissing, teasing and flirting or, well, much, much worse, they’re never less than authentic.
Billed as a gentrification horror story, which it is, “The Displaced” also lightly explores the issues that might confront a racially mixed couple like Lev and Marísa, without, thankfully, attempting to concoct easy solutions to their 21st-century problems.
Speaking of solutions, Gómez has written a new alternate ending for the play, which he’s preparing for publication. So depending upon which night you go, you might see either one of two endings. The one I saw elicited gasps from the opening night audience. Gómez is a consummate entertainer, with serious issues on his mind.
Presented by Crowded Fire Theater
Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 2
Tickets: Pay what you can
Contact: (415) 523-0034, ext. 1, www.crowdedfire.org/