‘One of the Good Ones’ Review: Pasadena Playhouse’s Cross-Cultural Comedy Brings a Norman Lear Sensibility to the Stage

Does “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” count as a genre unto itself, given how many plotlines in the last half-century have relied on the suitor-out-of-water supper guest as a linchpin? That trope seemed to have reached its furthest, most subversive extreme with “Get Out,” but there are still writers who are drawn to the trope of the unwelcome boyfriend without actually extending that nervous suppertime trope into, like, horror. In the play “One of the Good Ones,” which is having its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, playwright Gloria Calderón Kellett (who co-created Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” reboot) treats the basic structure of the 1967 Hepburn-Tracy-Poitier film as if it’s still as sturdy as ever. But she does it with what barely still counts as a twist in 2024, that it is a white guy who’s the odd fish out, presenting himself as instant marriage material for a cherished Latina daughter.

Or should that be Latinx, or Latine, or…? That question of contemporary usage and semantics is one of about a hundred things that will come to be debated over the course of an hour-and-a-half comedy that finds its laughs largely in exploring racial and/or generational differences. By the time this (mostly) four-character piece has gotten to the issue of what suffix best follows “Latin-,” it’s relaxed into something that feels more like a witty conversation than a farcical argument, which is when “One of the Good Ones” is at its best. The setup feels forced, even contrived, at this late date. Yet there’s no denying that the creakiness of the premise provides some basic building blocks for a show that gets more pleasurable as it goes along, once everyone stops being forced to pretend that we can’t all just get along. Even after it’s established that we can, there’s still a lot to talk about.

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It helps in the setup that, as Illana and Enrique, the family matriarch and patriarch, Lana Parrilla and Carlos Gomez give good slackjaw. Which is to say, in the early going, when these two are required to all but literally leave their jaws on the floor over their daughter’s choice of beau, they bring their best comedic chops to those exaggerated responses, while still establishing some groundedness that will provide better payoffs later on. Gomez, one of the original cast members of Broadway’s “In the Heights,” scales some fresh peaks here as a guy who’s transparently benevolent even in his hotter-headed moments — his initial fits of pride and pique giving way to the kind of slower burn that offers a clear indication he’s actually melting. (However the simple word “Ew” came off on the page, Gomez manages to give it a great spin, on a couple of occasions.) Even in the character’s less enlightened moments, the actor bring such likeable authority to the role that he almost gives provinciality a good name.

Parrilla, as the mom,gets to succumb to reason faster, thanks to the emotional shortcut that her tight maternal connection with their daughter provides. But her character is also the most theatrically hyperactive of this lot, having been saddled with menopausal hot flashes and a deep insecurity complex over never having learned Spanish, despite her Mexican family heritage. Illana borders in the early scenes on seeming unduly flighty for someone that we’re told has built her own business empire. Eventually, though, Calderón Kellett’s script gives her some of its starkest and boldest lines — including the biggest applause line of the night, about how her native California used to be part of Mexico. (It comes close to being this show’s “Barbie speech,” if we can call that a thing now.) The sympathy Parrilla engenders in a theatrical setting will be a nice reset for any attendees who have her Evil Queen turn on TV’s “Once Upon a Time” villainously burned into their brains. Here, she just gets to be queen.

As their daughter, Yoli, Isabella Gomez doesn’t get quite as much to do comedically as the rest of the cast; she’s the straightwoman, for the most part, gradually dribbling out the revelations that make others blow gaskets. There are some inconsistencies to Yoli: She insists on bragging to her parents about how good her new guy is in the sack (that might cause an “Ew” from the audience, as well as dad), but then she acts disgusted when they joke about their own marital horniness. And she’s supposed to be a successful influencer, in her own post-collegiate right, yet this professional over-sharer has never sent a photo of her caucasian steady to her folks, or they’ve just never peeked at her account. She’s portrayed as too candid and fearless to have ever withheld his race for any reason other than sheer forgetfulness, which doesn’t quite track for a perfect daughter, either. But Gomez (who worked with the playwright on “One Day at a Time”) shines through even these gaps in characterization — it’s no chore to be rooting for her to find love outside the nest.

Is Nico Greetham, as Marcos, someone who’s worth these modern-day Capulets capitulating? Not necessarily at first, where he shows up as a handsome white caricature straight out of the 1980s’ “The Official Preppy Handbook.” He’s presented as an egghead so clueless he apparently didn’t realize his very race would be considered risible. But they do have an excuse — not a very good one — in that she did tell the parents that he was a Cruise, even though they took it as a Cruz, and not “like Tom,” as they amend his surname in the wake of the shock. He also grew up in Mexico, with the twist being that he knows espanol meticulously, unlike his unilingual prospective mother-in-law (yes, you’ll get the inevitable gag of a super-caucasian guy pronouncing “Los Angeles” like an ancient Spaniard). And he can offer a more academic-sounding history of American imperialism than the folks can, even though he looks like he was dressed by Lisa Birnbach. He does finally start wisening up about the situation at hand, with lines like: “While I acknowledge the current vibe is heavy, I feel light within the gravitas.” Acted differently, it might be a potentially thankless role, but Greetham ultimately gets a surprising number of good laughs out of it, before and after his cheerfully woke intellectualism thaws into something more recognizably human.

To say that a new play betrays a sitcom sensibility probably sounds a little pejorative, under most circumstances. Amend that to Norman Lear sitcom sensibility, though, and the interest level rises, at least if you’re a sucker for the kind of comedy that means to humor us with humanism.  Calderón Kellett is very much a graduate of the Lear school, having been the co-creator and co-showrunner of “One Day at a Time,” in its Lear-derived, Latina-focused reboot for a few successful seasons. In the best Lear tradition, all the characters kind of trade off being the smart and noble or ridiculous ones in any given argument. That doesn’t always make for the most consistent characterizations, but it does feel deeply fair in the way that both sitcoms and life should be, where everybody in a culture clash is ultimately well-motivated and no one gets to win the rap battle every time.

Despite going for some pretty broad tropes in the setup, Calderón Kellett is proving herself worthy of carrying the late master’s torch into the realm of theater. And for all its aspirations to inspire, this is a show that will rise or fall on its provocation of laughs. “One of the Good Ones” has more than enough good, conscientious ones to enjoy a life beyond the San Gabriel Valley. That will likely continue at least for as long as a production has a director as good as efficient as maintaining an unflagging energy as Kimberly Senior, who finds an effortless fluidity in navigating the play’s serious and silly moments.

Speaking of how the play will or won’t travel, there’s one very homegrown, or at least location-based, ingredient that works especially well at the Pasadena Playhouse: the fact that it’s set in Pasadena, in the kind of grand, wood-filled house that seems too neo-Craftsman-y to call a mansion, but which counts as one nonetheless. If you live in Northeast L.A., it’s the kind of house you always wish you’d be invited over to but never are, so 80 minutes or so spent in Tanya Orellana’s crafty facsimile might be the next best thing.

But it’s not the living room that is going to make the time spent go by in a breeze. It’s the talk, which feels honestly conversational once the manufactured chaos simmers down to a mere boil. That’s not to say it ever stops avoiding punchlines — and there are some very good ones, like: “Come on, Marcos. Colonize that pinata.” (You’ll have to see the play to see how it gets there.) Yes, it feels like an elevated sitcom, and one that could stand some tweaks to ground it a bit more in the realm of the stage. But the key question is: if “One of the Good Ones” were the pilot for a series, would you want to come back and hang with these folks next week? More likely than not, the answer will be yes.

‘One of the Good Ones’ Review: Pasadena Playhouse’s Cross-Cultural Comedy Brings a Norman Lear Sensibility to the Stage

Pasadena Playhouse, 686 seats, $48-122. Opened March 17, 2024. Reviewed March 17. Running time: 1 HOUR 30 MIN.

  • Production: A Pasadena Playhouse production.

  • Crew: Director: Kimberly Senior. Playwright: Gloria Calderón Kellett. Scenic design: Tanya Orellana. Costume design: Denitsa Bliznakova. Lighting design: Jaymi Lee Smith. Sound design: Jeff Gardner, Andrea Allmond. Stage manager: David S. Franklin. Fight and intimacy coordinator: Rachel Lee Flesher. Casting: Ryan Bernard Tymensky. Assistant stage manager: Miriam E. Mendoza.

  • Cast: Lana Parrilla, Carlos Gomez, Isabella Gomez, Nico Greetham, Santino Jiminez.

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