Tony Meneses came up with an intriguing premise for his sometimes funny, sometimes sad but always engaging play “The Hombres,” which is currently having its world premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, with direction by Annie Tippe.
Julián (Eddie Gutiérrez), who is Hispanic but not strongly connected to Hispanic culture, is a former dancer who teaches yoga in a studio in an unnamed town in “New Jersey, somewhere off a NJ Transit line,” according to the program. One day, as the studio’s only male instructor, he is asked to have a talk with a Mexican construction worker, working nearby, who has been looking into the studio’s window.
It is thought that the construction worker, Héctor (Gerardo Rodriguez), has been ogling women as they do their yoga. But when Julián talks to him, intending to deliver a warning, he discovers that Héctor is really just intensely interested in yoga itself. People arrive at the studio looking stressed out, and leave looking relaxed. He could use some of that.
Lessons are expensive, though, and Héctor is poor, and so he and Julián strike a deal. Julián will give him private lessons, for free, after hours; in return, Héctor will help out with the studio’s janitorial work. Everyone wins.
Uh, not really: There are lots of complications. One major one is that Héctor worries that his coworkers and friends Pedro (Victor Cruz) and Beto (Jon Rua) will disapprove, thinking yoga is not something a macho guy should do. And so he tries to keep his new hobby, and his arrangement with Julián, from them.
Meanwhile, a subplot has Julián, who is gay, perplexed by the mixed signals that his handsome new student, Miles (Noah Gaynor), is sending out. Miles is married with a pregnant wife. Yet he gives some indications that he is bisexual and may be interested in starting a relationship with Julián. Or maybe he’s just being friendly. It’s tough to know, and Julián isn’t bold enough to ask.
What Meneses has done, basically, is set up a great platform to explore how people from different walks of life — straight and gay, white and Hispanic, middle class and lower class, immigrant and non-immigrant, even male and female (though no female characters are seen) — make, in many cases, unfair assumptions about each other. And how — in our complex, contemporary world — even the most well-meaning and open-minded of us can make decisions that have painful, unforeseen consequences.
The two characters at the core of the play are full of contradictions themselves.
Despite the peaceful vibe he radiates as a yoga instructor, Julián is lonely, and frustrated to have left his dreams of making a career for himself in the world of modern dance behind. (Adding to the motif of boundaries created by labeling people, he complains that he’s not white enough for white dance companies or Hispanic enough for Hispanic dance companies.)
Héctor is gruff and has an explosive temper, but is also thoughtful and sensitive, and speaks his mind in a more simple, direct way than Julián can.
Miles, who is a bit of a lost soul, is more one-dimensional, though he shows some other sides, too, by the end of the play. The same goes for Pedro, who is something of a genial goofball, and the hot-headed Beto.
The set, ingeniously designed by Amy Rubin, allows for the action to switch back and forth, frequently, from the yoga studio to the construction site.
These are unassuming settings, of course, but that works perfectly well for Meneses’ unassuming but profound play.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank presents “The Hombres” through April 10. Visit tworivertheater.org.
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