Martín Zimmerman's new drama makes a worthy, if imperfect, entry in the long line of drama driven by sibling rivalry. Here, the fraught relationship between brothers Edward (Gabriel Ruiz) and Beto (Nate Santana) is intriguingly colored with intersectionality of politics, race and class.
Upwardly striving Edward escaped Tucson for an Ivy League education and law school, leaving behind kid brother Beto to suffer their mother's drunken rages and fall in with gangs. As the play opens, Beto—newly paroled after serving ten years for armed robbery—is surprised to find Edward waiting for him. Edward wants to reconnect with his brother, but he also has less fraternal motivations; he's moved his family back to Arizona to launch a political career, first running for Pima County D.A., with the governor's righteous-progressive chief of staff (Jan Radcliff) already grooming him for higher office. Controlling the optics on his ex-felon baby brother—and thus controlling Beto, period—is vital to Edward's promising career.
The cycle of recrimination, reconciliation, repeat between the brothers is pretty standard issue, but by placing their story amid the volatile state of Arizona politics, Zimmerman adds some interesting shades. Spencer, the chief of staff, persuades Edward that by becoming the state's first Latino attorney general he could become a force for the people, but what's good for the people might not be good for Beto. The playwright also tweaks preconceptions about race and skin color: Edward is darker-skinned and visually identifiable as Latino, while Beto inherited their white father's fair skin and blue eyes. Edward casts his brother's gang ties, tattoos and accent as put-ons to prove he's "Mexican enough," while Beto sees Edward in a tux for the titular event as a costume of its own kind. Cultural affectations run in many directions and for many purposes, we see.
The play's turning point comes when one of Beto's former associates accidentally kills a cop, and Beto's inside knowledge of the case compromises Edward's prosecution. The political machinations that unfold from here are convoluted—and occasionally strain credulity, as when Edward arranges an off-the-record, one-on-one visit with the accused (Marvin Quijada)—but Ruiz gives a sterling performance as a well-meaning man who finds his loyalties and his priorities at impossible odds. All four cast members are terrific, in fact, with Edward Torres's direction keeping the tension driving—all until a stilted final scene that's more deflating than satisfying. Still, as a well-acted portrait of very modern moral dilemmas, White Tie Ball provides much to ponder.