Like Peter Parker, Alex — the central character of “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” — is an unlikely superhero. He’s unemployed, 20-something and still living in his mother’s house, in good shape but far from muscle-bound.
Unlike Peter Parker, Alex (played by Bradley James Tejeda in this new play’s current production at the Two River Theater in Red Bank) doesn’t get bitten by anything radioactive, and isn’t very good at making costumes. And so his superhero alter ego, El Coquí, is not exactly an imposing crime fighter. Even his name — a coquí is a small Puerto Rican tree frog — is just about as unintimidating as it could be.
But that’s fine with Alex, since he really doesn’t want to fight. He just wants to hang around some rooftops of his Sunset Park, Brooklyn neighborhood, in his costume. In the process, he hopes to find some inspiration for his floundering career as a comic book artist.
Except he’s discovered — by an ambitious photographer, Yesica (Flor de Liz Perez) — and her photos make El Coquí a national sensation, with an action figure of his own, and everything.
Written by Matt Barbot and directed by José Zayas, “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” is lively, ambitious, and imaginatively staged. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado gives Alex’s room the colorful clutter of the adolescent geek he still is, in many ways, and uses video cartoon panels to help tell the story. Lighting designer Zach Blane helpfully adds some purposely garish neon into the mix, and costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter comes with an appropriately shabby costume for El Coquí as well as a truly menacing look for his imaginary arch-rival, El Chupacabra.
As you would expect in a superhero play, there are some fights along the way, well executed by the cast members, with direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Barbot’s storyline forces viewers to suspend disbelief in a major way, though. In an era when Comic-Cons and other opportunities for cosplaying take place all over the country, all the time, it seems extremely unlikely that Yesica’s photos of El Coquí, and his pathetic costume, would go viral, almost immediately. It’s unlikely, actually, that anyone, anywhere, would pay attention to them for more than a second. So that was a hard one for me to go along with.
Also, Barbot tries to pack a few too many themes into his piece.
El Coquí — whose mask was made in Puerto Rico, and given to Alex by his late father — represents a way for Alex to connect with his Puerto Rican heritage, which he feels distant from, as a Nuyorican. (Alex can’t even speak Spanish, and has been taunted with the phrase, “Sorta Rican.”)
Barbot adds some satire via marketing meetings attended by Alex’s more conservative and more successful older brother Joe (Cesar J. Rosado). The clueless company is attempting to sell Voltage Cola (the “Bottle of Doom” in the play’s title) to a Latino audience in the most crass ways. Joe is starting to feel disenchanted, yet encourages Alex to sell out and join him at the company as well.
Alex’s insecurities are represented by El Chupacabra (Gabriel Diego Hernández), the sneering, superconfident supervillain who exists only in his own mind. Hernández also plays Junior — a successful recording artist who represents another kind of foe for Alex.
That’s a lot — probably, too much — to pack into a one-act, 90-minute play. Yesica has a cause of her own — she want to use El Coquí in her fight against gentrification — but Barbot doesn’t do much with that, or the possibility of a romantic relationship between Yesica and Alex.
Of course, in the world of superheros, though, there is always a sequel.
“El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Feb. 4; visit tworivertheater.org.