The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a body-slam of a play, a piece of in-your-face theater that stops just short of sensory overload. Kristoffer Diaz’s dark comedy is set in the world of professional wrestling, and like the proprietors of that pseudo-sport, it knows how to get a crowd pumped up.
The lights flash. The music blares. The muscular performers strut up and down the aisles of the Geffen Playhouse, boldly asserting their supremacy and delivering hilarious, profanity-laced monologues. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, drive on down to Westwood: you won’t be disappointed.
But the play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year, simultaneously works on an entirely different level. Diaz sees pro wrestling as a metaphor for modern American society, a place where show-biz values have co-opted such traditional virtues as hard work and devotion to craft. His work is an eloquent lament to what we have lost.
The central character is Macedonio “Mace” Guerra (Desmin Borges), a gifted wrestler whose job is to make his more-charismatic, less-talented colleagues look good. As he tells us more than once, he doesn’t mind this—much. It’s his role, and he accepts it; it allows him to participate in the sport he loves.
When he spots Vigneshwar Paduar (Usman Ally), an Indian-American amateur athlete, he realizes he has found his league’s next star. Federation president Everett K. Olson (Steve Valentine) agrees, but he insists he needs to build a story around the rookie—a narrative the sport’s xenophobic fans can easily relate to.
Before long, V.P. has been rechristened “the Terrorist.” His vaguely Middle Eastern looks are complemented with a scraggly beard and an angry attitude. Mace is assigned the role of his Latin American accomplice, the hilariously named Che Castro Chavez. In the ring, he wears a sombrero and two ammunition belts, and carries a set of bongo drums. Just like that, a pair of villains is born.
These personas are both racist and ridiculous, but fans—who are in need of enemies to vent their frustrations—are immediately hooked. Plans are made for a series of matches, which will culminate in a decisive battle with all-American hero Chad Deity, broadcast on pay-per-view.
It’s fitting that the play’s California debut coincides with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and not only because it pokes fun at the Muslim stereotypes that have become so pervasive over the last decade. Diaz also asks what we’ve lost track of as we’ve been obsessed with enemies from abroad, and he provides a sobering answer: the values that made our country great.
As Mace complains, razzle-dazzle now trumps competence, and self-promotion is far more important than actual skill. He’s talking about wrestling, but it’s hard to think of a profession that hasn’t been touched by this troubling trend.
A play influenced in equal measure by Bertolt Brecht and Hulk Hogan can’t be easy to stage, but Chad Deity receives a virtually definitive production at the Geffen. Edward Torres, who directed the premiere at Chicago’s Victory Theatre, as well as last year’s off-Broadway production, presents this rich material with both energy and clarity.
The lead actors have been with the show from the beginning, and they inhabit their characters in winning ways. Borges makes Mace a lovable little dynamo, while Archie is hilarious as the preening, self-satisfied Chad. Aside from their physical prowess, all display a real command of Diaz’s vivid, precise language.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Oct. 9 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Performances are daily except Monday; tickets are $47 to $77. Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com.