NEW YORK — There are times when a teenage girl needs the advice of a savvy woman instead of her well-intentioned, single-parent father. This is the predicament of Penelope Lopez, a teenager with a very big problem, in the world premiere of Fernanda Coppel's fresh, zingy new play, "Chimichangas and Zoloft", which opened Sunday night off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2.
Sixteen-year-old Penelope, portrayed with sweet, sassy naivete by Xochitl Romero, depends for maternal advice on Sonia, the mother of her best friend, Jackie. But Sonia, who just turned 40, has mysteriously disappeared, communicating with her daughter only by occasional texting, so Jackie (Carmen Zilles, forthright and equally sassy) does her innocent best to help her friend through her predicament.
Meanwhile, Sonia (a thoughtful, sensitive performance by Zabryna Guevara) appears to the audience in solo monologues, commenting with wry poignance on her life and family, and discussing how fed up she is with years of debilitating bouts of depression. Many of her lines contain Coppel's typically creative imagery, as when Sonia compares happiness fading from her daughter's face to "a winter sunset" and says her own heart feels like "a metal weight in my chest."
The teenagers are very funny together, referring to one another as "Dude." They sound like normal 21st-century kids, casually cursing or speaking in shorthand, bickering one minute and then making up in a nanosecond. Their conversations are quite colorful, as when Penelope explains a burst of sadness as "Dude, I tore apart like a wafer." It's a credit to both Romero and Zilles that they really seem like teenage girls.
Both families are Hispanic, and there are Spanish expressions throughout the text. There's a lot of frank sexual talk, and a surprising twist of events involving the girls' fathers. Alfredo Narcisco is humorously uptight as Penelope's fussy dad, Alejandro, whileTeddy Canez is macho and intense as Sonia's uncommunicative husband, Ricardo.
The girls try to open their fathers' eyes to things they've long repressed or ignored, while the dads offer clumsy advice, such as when Alejandro warns his daughter about sex by comparing it to buying a motorcycle: "Sure it looks cool and shiny/But at any turn you could crash into a taco truck and DIE."
Coppel, a clever writer, flavors her characters' conversations with humor or sarcasm as well as genuine emotion. She has smart things to say about parenting, love and communication, and definitely knows how to create theatrical tension. Serious social issues like homosexuality, teen pregnancy, and use and abuse of both recreational and prescription drugs come in for their share of laughs, but worthwhile points are made about the need for love and understanding amid the complexities of modern life.