It would be fair to say that Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Olivia (Gizel Jiménez) have a contentious mother-daughter relationship.
In the Public Theater’s new musical Miss You Like Hell—book and lyrics by the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Quiara Alegría Hudes and music and lyrics by Erin McKeown—they are reunited when Beatriz, looking exceptionally nervy, turns up at Olivia’s place in Philadelphia, wanting to spirit her daughter away from her father (and Beatriz’s ex) for a road trip west.
And it’s a very tangled set of tire tracks from then on, as we discover why Beatriz is so nervous—an undocumented immigrant, she’s terrified of being deported to Mexico, on the basis of a long-ago crime—and why Olivia is so bolshy and annoying. Basically: Her mother left her. She can’t forgive her for her absence.
Now, anyone who has read some Kerouac or seen Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon blow up a sexist trucker’s livelihood knows what the open American road should do. It is the most widely traveled, and mythologized, expanse of liberation, reinvention, and catharsis. On an American road trip, you meet a gallery of weird and endearing folk, and you find yourselves.
In Miss You Like Hell, directed by Lear deBessonet—who oversaw the Public’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater last summer—the open road seems too stripped of its DNA of imagination and inspiration. (The musical’s conception dates back to pre-Trump’s presidency, while its storyline hits at the heart of his hardline policies.)
The stage is stripped almost bare. You never feel you are anywhere but a theater. Minimal staging can be effective, but this musical cries out for some visual richness and invention.
The most memorable bit of scenery is the outline of some birds. Otherwise, mother and daughter sit atop high chairs to double as car seats, while behind them sit an ensemble who sing together, and then spring out of their collective to play supplementary characters, like Higgins (David Patrick Kelly) and Mo (Michael Mulheren), a gay couple who even as intended to be an unlikely gay couple—the joy of the open, open road y’see—seem like a fairly unlikely gay couple.
The songs of antagonism, reconciliation, and soul-baring are beautifully orchestrated and sung. But they do not really advance the story, and that story continues to puzzle, particularly as you never really get to the root of the conflict on stage, or care that much as mother and daughter continue their endless arguing.
Also, and this for this critic was the most irritating thing, Olivia is supposed to be a blogger, who periodically asks her blog readers what she should do. She appears to be a totally self-involved bore anyway, and surely, you think, the blogging storyline will only underscore this self-obsession.
No, we’re supposed to find it profound, even as she hunts disconsolately for likes and clicks.
Still, at least that storyline allows us to meet Pearl (Latoya Edwards), a ranger in Yellowstone National Park, one of those offering Olivia their own advice as she posts her drivelly “me, me, me” updates to the world. Edwards is a fantastic singer and has a standout song to welcome Beatriz, Olivia, and us to the park itself.
Rubin-Vega and Jimenéz work hard too to make their characters and stories cohere, against the scattered material and bare staging, and there are some moving moments as the impact of Beatriz’s likely fate becomes apparent—particularly in the closing scene. The punch and impact of a defiantly and realistically unhappy ending is bracing. And finally in that moment, for the first time in 90 minutes, we feel as if we are outside, under the sky and in the heart of America, rather than facing the sparsely furnished stage of a New York theater.
Miss You Like Hell is at the Public Theater until May 13. Book here.