Cultures don't exactly clash in Culture Clash's "Radio Mambo," which opened last night at Arena Stage, they just kind of bump. Occasionally bump and grind. The three members of the Los Angeles-based theater group--Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza--give the audience a high-spirited and funny tour of modern-day Miami that touches on troublesome issues but doesn't pause to develop them.
"Radio Mambo" was put together from taped interviews with various Miamians, and the three actor-authors transform themselves with minimal props (a wig, a shirt) into the people they interviewed. They're protean performers, shape-shifting across gender and race (Montoya also does a very convincing dog). Audiences may be reminded of Anna Deavere Smith's work, but this piece doesn't have the same depth or scary intimacy as, say, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992." Smith vanished into her people; Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza just mimic them cleverly.
The canvas of characters is broad, though not very deep. Although the show tries to cover all the ethnic bases--Cubans, Haitians, Jews, blacks, whites, non-Cuban Latinos--it doesn't include many working-class folk. We meet an art dealer and a press agent and three prisoners and some drag queens and a furniture dealer and a psychiatrist, but no bus drivers, custodians, waitresses, convenience-store clerks, hotel help, etc. Not even any rental car agents, though the audience laughs knowingly when a black character talks to us about using a rent-a-car map as if we were dopey tourists. (It's not clear who the joke is on--perhaps the tourists who have been targeted then robbed or murdered because they drove rental cars?)
There are striking moments. Two black matrons discuss Miami's African American history over tea, one of them pointing out that she once went to a library and asked for materials on black history, only to be given "a folder of obituaries." Talking of the times Jews were banned from certain hotels, a press agent says, "The goyim could be awfully cruel and funny that way." A Cuban exile says of Castro, "He could not kill us all."
Culture Clash is frank about its leftist political leanings, and this shows up in "Radio Mambo" in the way the various characters are depicted. The Cubans are pretty much shown as capitalist hustlers. A Haitian points out that his country's troubles are the results of American foreign policy (though no reference is made to recent events; the evening never gets very specific politically). A contractor is shown as callous, and a developer and his wife are treated with outright contempt. Admittedly, they're pretty horrible--coarse and selfish--but the interviewer (played here by Montoya) is so clearly disgusted by these people that you begin to feel a little sorry for them. It's very, very easy to set people up in interviews, especially ones you later edit severely, so that they look like fools.
At one point, talking about how unemotional he is, the developer says, "I'm Norwegian," and the interviewer mutters, "I have no idea what you mean by that." The guy obviously needs to brush up on his "white ethnics." Diversity-furthering note to Culture Clash: Norwegian Americans are generally stereotyped as laconic, pleasure-denying and inexpressive; see Keillor, Garrison, "Lake Wobegon Days" et al.
Radio Mambo, written and performed by Culture Clash: Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza. Directed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Set, Herbert Siguenza; costumes, Elena Prietto and Culture Clash; lights, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; sound, Mark Friedman; choreography, Lettie Ibarra. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Jan. 2. Call 202-488-3300.
CAPTION: Herbert Siguenza as interviewer and interviewee in Culture Clash's "Radio Mambo," at Arena Stage.