Each of the four women of Mala Hierba epitomizes a female type: the wife, the maid, the daughter, the girlfriend. But in Tanya Saracho’s minor-league-Almodóvaresque play, crisply directed by Jerry Ruiz and running through August 9 at 2econd Stage Theatre’s Uptown space, the gifted quartet of actresses establish an air of unpredictability that energizes the 85-minute piece through its swaying plot twists to a rather pat conclusion.
Marta Milans plays Liliana, the latest spouse of a magnate on the Texas border. She is commiserating with her sharp housekeeper (Sandra Marquez) as they both brace for the arrival of Liliana’s spoiled stepdaughter, Fabiola (Ana Nogueira). Liliana is also readying for the arrival of her ex-lover Martiza (Roberta Colindrez), whom she summoned a week earlier in a pill-induced stupor. (We more than get the point when Liliana hurriedly shakes three different prescription bottles before she finds the one she’s looking for.) Tempted to escape her trophy-wife life, Liliana struggles with the realization that the survival of several people—including her—depends on coiling her frustration behind lipsticked smiles and shiny jewelry. Maybe, she says in one unnerving line, her husband ”would let me keep a baby this time.”
Mala Hierba is peppered with Spanish idioms and outbursts (the title loosely translates as bad seed), but Saracho’s attempt to make the dialogue clear to an English-language audience backfires, as the characters frequently speak to each other in Spanish and then offer the translation in the next breath. People don’t talk like that—especially not these women—and the play’s realism suffers as a result. But the performances don’t.
Carrying the play with voluptuous poise, Milans hides a range of needy gestures within her statuesque frame. And Nogueira, late of The Michael J. Fox Show, plays Fabiola as a horror show of malice and manipulation. Saracho, who’s written for HBO’s Girls (she recently sold Mala Hierba to the network), keenly understands that what’s toxic about an entitled imp like Fabiola is not her behavior toward the other women. It’s how they all let her get away with it. B
(Tickets: Second Stage Theatre