What draws two lovers together may be more obvious than what keeps them in sync. An inviting smile and smooth opening line can pierce the noise of a crowded club, but then what? In the case of “Bees & Honey,” which opened at MCC Theater on Monday, eyes lock and hips swivel to the plucky guitar and eight-count beat of bachata.
This Dominican style of music and dance, with its sensual cadence and professions of heartache, is a foundational metaphor in this boy-meets-girl two-hander by the playwright Guadalís Del Carmen. After falling into step on a steamy night out, Johaira (Maribel Martinez) and Manuel (Xavier Pacheco) they begin a duet that soon finds them sharing an apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.
She is a district attorney who ascends the ranks to prosecute high-profile cases; he’s a mechanic with plans to expand his auto-repair shop across the five boroughs.
By the next scene they’re navigating the rhythms of a long-term romance. immersed in the tenor and flavors of their Afro-Dominican backgrounds. Instinctively, they sometimes slip into Spanish, teasing and rooting for each other as their lives continue to intertwine.
The slice-of-life naturalism of “Bees & Honey,” presented in partnership with the Sol Project, is more interested in capturing culturally specific detail than in breaking ground with an original plot. The churn of daily ins and outs in this staging by the director Melissa Crespo, on a catalog-colorful living room set by the designer Shoko Kambara, has a familiar sitcom quality. And nearly every story development reflects an inevitable truism (sex lives dwindle, women get pregnant, elders require care). For a marital drama that runs two hours including an intermission, it feels light on substance and surprise.
But what’s distinctive about Johaira and Manuel, and how their syncopation thrives and falters, is the texture of their shared heritage. Del Carmen skirts the edges of stereotype in underlining qualities variously associated with Dominican men and women, but ultimately succeeds in creating believable, if conventional, characters. Del Carmen betrays a heavy hand in how Johaira compels Manuel to read bell hooks, as an antidote to his inherited machismo. That she prosecutes sexual assault cases in court adds synthetic emotional fuel to the play’s highest-stakes climax, which happens offstage to people we never meet.
Still, the ease and electricity between Martinez and Pacheco, whose performances deepen as the union predictably grows more complicated, lend the production a sticky-sweet appeal. Johaira is by turns headstrong, soft and a stranger to herself, inner tensions that Martinez embodies with luminous transparency. And Pacheco’s Manuel is spring-loaded with empathy and eroticism, reflexively attentive and affectionate, ready to respond to the slightest provocation. They seem to gibe perfectly until they don’t. So what happened? As Johaira says of dancing bachata: “You lose your footing and the moment is gone.”
Bees & Honey
Through June 11 at MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Running time: 2 hours.