Papo is a Puerto Rican hustler who’s been selling his body on the mean streets of early 1990s New York City since the age of fifteen. Brian is a 26-year-old gay virgin who frequents phone sex lines and adult bookstores, alternately craving and fearing his first sexual experience. Bobby is a 16-year-old runaway whose older brothers have been raping him daily since he was twelve.

These are the three lost souls who meet and attempt some kind of meaningful human connection in Edwin Sanchez’s gritty, powerful Trafficking In Broken Hearts, now burning up the stage at the Celebration Theatre.

Efrain Schunior’s thrilling direction, the raw and riveting performances of Ramon Camacho, Stephen Twardokus, and Elijah Trichon, and a sensational design team combine to make this an electric, emotionally gripping evening of theater.

At the center of Trafficking is a star-making turn by Camacho, so authentic in his portrayal of street-smart, foul-mouthed Papo that his work here goes beyond acting to the realm of simply being. “I don’t kiss no faggots,” Papo insists when he first meets Brian, but like many a homophobe, his words contain more than a bit of “the hustler doth protest too much,” for soon Papo finds himself the pursuer rather than the pursued. Like a moth drawn to a flame, he begins to find himself doing the unthinkable, falling for another man. Unfortunately, the man he has come to not only desire but perhaps even love is one screwed-up individual and not about to offer Papo any kind of fairy tale happy ending.

Unlike Papo, Brian has recognized his sexual orientation ever since his parents caught him playing doctor with another boy at the age of seven and wouldn’t speak to him for a week. With parents like these telling him what was right and what was wrong, it’s no wonder Brian has resisted coming out. Add to that the past decade’s AIDS epidemic and the resulting fear of death which has consumed Brian and it’s easy to understand why it’s taken him so long to act on his desires.

The most sexually scarred of the three, Bobby has lost the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Four years of incestuous rape have only recently ended with his brother Reggie’s engagement to a woman. Bobby sees this as a betrayal, the only solution for which is to escape in search of another Reggie, someone he believes he has found in Papo. Soon, the homeless teen is crashing at Papo’s place, lounging around in panties (and nothing else) and begging “Reggie” to call him “baby” as his brother did.

Trafficking In Broken Hearts takes you in its grasp and holds you there, riveted, from Papo’s “Hey, you wanna see a movie?” to its shattering climax. Papo invites, Brian refuses, Papo pursues, then backs off in fear of being what he most derides, a “faggot,” only to once again become both the pursued and the pursuer. Add to this the troubling, incendiary presence of Bobby in Papo’s life and what you have is a situation in which at least one, if not all three of the young men, is heading for disaster.

With his dark hair and eyes and tall, athletic physique, Camacho is the type of actor for whom the word smoldering would seem to have been invented. As Papo, those eyes turn dangerous and seductive and that physique both intimidating and irresistible to the men who desire him. Beneath Papo’s tough exterior, though, Camacho lets the street hustler’s innate sweetness show through, as well as the need he feels for another man, deny it though he may. What we see here is the work of a truly gifted young actor, one whose career will hopefully offer him opportunities to play a variety of diverse roles. As Papo, it’s hard to imagine anyone better.

Likewise, Twardokas is mesmerizingly believable as the sexually repressed Brian, a victim of his desires and of the times he lives in. As funny as it is to see Brian nearly caught by his offstage secretary as he engages in phone sex, it is even more painful to observe his naked need for human touch in conflict with his paralyzing fear of AIDS. Here is someone who can with one breath say “I’ve waited this long, I can wait until there’s a cure,” and in another, fantasize about a full-blown sexual encounter with Papo only seconds after he’s chased him away from his workplace. Like Camacho, watching Twardokas’ superb work here is to wonder where the character ends and the actor begins.

Trichon’s sweet and touching performance as Bobby is heartbreakingly real, his need for someone to fill his emptiness as naked as Brian’s, even though they come from polar opposite places, the adult from repression and the child from sexual overdose. The role itself is the weak point in Sanchez’s triangle, one which smacks of invention compared to the absolute authenticity of Papo and Brian, but Trichon’s performance has not a trace of weakness. Though it may be harder to identify with Bobby (is he gay, transgender, or simply fucked up?), Trichon makes you care deeply for this young, wounded soul.

Trafficking is the Celebration’s most sexually charged production in recent memory, even more so than the season opener, Porcelain, and there is brief nudity, some of it full frontal, but justified by the writing. More than being about sex, however, Sanchez’s play is about the need for human connection, both physical and emotional, and it reveals the damage wrought by a life lived in denial of one’s sexuality. If ever there was a Celebration production which cried out for scheduled talk-back performances (how about post-Sunday matinees?), this is that show.

Company member (and UCLA MFA in Directing for the Stage grad) Schunior makes an auspicious Celebration mainstage directorial debut here, proving himself an actor’s director and a stunningly visual one as well. He has surrounded himself with Bruin design talent whose work rises to the accustomed level of excellence set by the Celebration’s “resident designers.” Set designer Marika Stephens surrounds the audience with black, graffiti-covered walls, and creates the show’s diverse locations (42nd Street, adult book store, Brian’s office, Papo’s flophouse, etc.) using scaffolding and not much else. Stark, bleak, and effective. Sohail e. Najafi’s lighting moves from the bright lights of 42nd Street to dimly lit back alleys to harsh fluorescent lighting. Emarie Kohlmoos costumes each cast member as befits his character, Papo in urban street wear, Brian in stiff business suits and ties, and Bobby in teen runaway garb and a bevy of panties. Most striking of all is Michael Cooper’s sound design and original music, incorporating the noises of late night street life, pulsating tribal beats, and a dozen or so offstage voices to powerful effect.

Many will come to see Trafficking In Broken Hearts for the sexual content and nudity, and anything that puts bodies in seats is a good thing in these tough economic times. What all will exit the theater with is much more than that, however. Trust me. Papo, Brian, and Bobby will stay with you long after the performance has ended.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd.,Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 16, 2009 
                                                                                       Photos: Efrain Schunior

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