Fernando Richardson’s brain surgery is tomorrow, but the 40ish building contractor doesn’t seem all that worried. “Doctor was just here,” he tells his wife Kate and best friend Patrick. “Said I may not remember people for a few days. I may be really confused.” The Fernando who emerges from the operating room is more than merely confused however, or so his family and friends will soon discover in Fernando Richardson’s Treacherous Brain, now playing Thursdays at Open Fist Theatre.

Monica Trasandes’ entertaining world premiere dramedy takes a fascinating look at what happens when a bit of post-op swelling causes a good deal more than simple confusion in Fernando’s up-till-now perfectly sane brain. Directed with assurance by Andre Barron and performed by an all-around excellent cast, Fernando Richardson’s Treacherous Brain makes for a satisfyingly original evening of theater despite a suddenly surreal final scene that may leave you scratching your head.

Whatever clarity Fernando had found before his surgery (he’d just informed Kate that he was at long last not only ready but eager to adopt) flies out the window once he’s come out of anesthesia. The Uruguyan-American thinks he’s an architect, doesn’t recognize best buddy Patrick, believes his mother Mercedes is Maria Callas, has no recollection of Kate, and can talk about nothing more than boarding a plane bound for Argentina in search of a woman named Elisa. “I left her in the middle of the Dirty War,” Fernando explains. “The Dirty War. They would come at night and disappear you just for being, you know a communist or whatever. And then kill you.” So desperate is Fernando to leave for the airport that Patrick feels compelled to tie his friend down until someone can be summoned to sedate him.

It turns out that there really is an Elisa, that Fernando did indeed meet her when he traveled to Argentina in ’96 for his sister’s graduation, and that she is now living in Idaho. As to whether there was any romantic involvement between the two, Kate’s suspicions are heightened considerably when the dark-haired beauty flies to Fernando’s side, supposedly on the way to her own wedding in Hawaii, but more than willing to extend her Los Angeles layover. To further complicate matters, Fernando’s interest in Elisa—and his sudden disinterest in Kate—may be all the impetus Patrick needs to finally confirm Kate’s suspicions that his feelings for her are more than simply those of a man for his best friend’s wife. As for Kate’s feelings for Patrick…

In the interest of only partial disclosure, nothing more of Fernando Richardson’s Treacherous Brain’s plot twists and turns will be revealed here. Suffice it to say that playwright Trasandes and her cast keep the audience on the edge of their seats until that darned final scene.

There are many reasons why most of Fernando Richardson’s Treacherous Brain works so well. Trasandes creates real characters we quickly come to care about and keeps us guessing as to what will transpire next. The Uruguayan-born playwright gives us enough laughter to prevent the dramedy from ever becoming maudlin, yet make sure that Fernando, family, and friends remain firmly rooted in reality.

The entire cast do first-rate work. Roberto Montesinos plays Fernando with a goofy Latin charm that endears him to the audience from the get-go. As Kate, a terrific Natalie Sutherland has the intensity of a younger Debra Winger. Paula Fins gives Fernando’s vivacious mom Mercedes both elegance and Uruguyan panache. Karla Zamudio combines charm and sex appeal as Elisa. Lyn Ross is a sassy treat as the nurse. A dynamic Mark Slater completes the cast as Patrick.

Set decorator/designer Valda Lake has adroitly superimposed a hospital room on Open Fist’s mainstage Curse Of The Starving Class set. Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting design is an effective one as well. Garrard Whatley’s sound design adds just the right mix of effects. Martha Demson is artistic director for Open Fist Theatre. Daniel Escobar is stage manager and Derek Manson assistant stage manager.

With a last scene rewrite, it is easy to imagine Fernando Richardson’s Treacherous Brain reopening for a longer run following its Thursdays-only engagement at Open Fist. It is intriguing, entertaining, and original, all of which make it well worth a look-see.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
–Steven Stanley
May 26, 2011
Photos: Monica Trasandes

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