“Living & Breathing” covers familiar territory

Carlos Ibarra and Christopher M. Ramirez on stage performing
Carlos Ibarra and Christopher M. Ramirez in Living & Breathing at Two River Theater in Red Bank. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The three characters view the “statue” from different perspectives

The cast of Living & Breathing sitting on stage looking at the cowboy inside a glass box
The cast of Living & Breathing at Two River Theater in Red Bank. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Yazmina Reza’s Tony®-award winning 1998 play Art concerns itself with how the purchase of a controversial piece of art spurs a group of three friends to express long-standing resentments. The artwork, an all-white painting, exposes mutually-held assumptions and prejudices among the trio and brings them dangerously close to shattering their long-held friendship. 

But I digress. Two River Theatre in Red Bank is not presenting Art. Instead, it is presenting Living & Breathing, which appears to borrow the plot of Art with one major difference:  the controversial piece of art is now a “living statue,” a human being who we are told is an undocumented Latino immigrant named Ruben (Carlos Ibarra). He wears different Latino stereotype outfits, striking a pose and not moving for extended periods of time. The “statue” is displayed in an open-sided box so that it can be touched as well as seen.

The three characters, friends since their college days, view the “statue” from their different perspectives. Todd (Michael Markham), a club owner, sees it as a daring artistic statement about exploitation and the demeaning stereotypes used to dehumanize other races and plans to display it at his club. Michael (Christopher M. Ramirez), a Mexican-American playwright, regards it as pure exploitation without any redeeming artistic value. Aspiring filmmaker Jeremy (Chris Gardner), half Black and half Jewish, is both appalled and intrigued by the “statue” while he tries to resolve the differences antagonizing his two friends.

Chris Gardner and Christopher M. Ramirez sitting and talking to each other
Chris Gardner and Christopher M. Ramirez in Living & Breathing at Two River Theater in Red Bank. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Unfortunately, aside from the artwork now being flesh and blood instead of unliving canvas, there is little in playwright Mando Alvarado’s work that hasn’t been argued before, and more interestingly. The relationship between art and real life, the conflicting views of art as political statements versus art as exploitative manipulation, the idea of works of art as commodities — they all stretch back for centuries.

The three main characters’ friendships are riddled with an unending recital of their own unexplored biases and uninformed judgments — again, familiar territory. A compelling new art-versus-life story is not the result.

Faced with this storytelling burden, director Rebecca Martínez and her cast are overcome by the underwritten characters, who are points of view rather than living and breathing people, and the unfocused script. But there is talent in this director and this cast, and I hope to see it put to better use in future projects.

The set, depicting a sterile Los Angeles apartment, is perfect in its minimalism and coldness as designed by Raul Abrego and subtly lit by Cat Tate Starmer. Christopher Vergara, the costume designer, gets to show off with the outfits worn by the “statue” while dressing the three friends in contemporary garb, befitting their characters.

Using Art as a springboard rather than a blueprint could have made Living & Breathing a more interesting work. Those play-goers who are not familiar with Art or who have not been embroiled in the art-versus-life debate might find it an interesting work. As it stands now, I hesitate to recommend making the trip to Red Bank’s Two River Theatre to see Living & Breathing.

Living & Breathing is presented at the Marion Huber Theatre at Two River Theatre in Red Bank through February 2, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit tworivertheater.org or call 732-345-1400.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.