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'Latinologues' sounds funny

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NEW YORK -- Politically incorrect humor is at its safest when delivered by members of a targeted group to members of that targeted group. So there was little danger in the air at a recent preview of Latinologues (** 1/2 out of four), writer/actor Rick Najera's irreverent homage to the fastest-growing segment of the American population.

Najera and the three other gifted performers featured in the new Broadway production of his show, which opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre, are all of Latin extraction. Their heritage was apparently shared by much of the Saturday afternoon audience, which laughed heartily at jabs directed at Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.

In truth, while non-Spanish-speaking fans may miss a few references in Latinologues, much of Najera's material is too patently affectionate, or hokey, to rile anyone.

Still, as breezily directed by Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong fame, Najera and company deliver some jokes and insights that should cross cultural boundaries.

Some bits offer more sober commentary on issues such as immigration and the kind of oppression immigrants seek to escape. Rene Lavan has a poignant moment as a janitor whose pursuit of the American dream was disrupted on Sept. 11, while Shirley A. Rumierk turns up as a Cuban prostitute who solicits an Anglo tourist with increasing desperation.

Latinologues ends on a wacky note with a serious subtext, as the death of an immigrant leads other characters to reflect once more on the necessity and efficacy of borders. A patrolman played by Najera observes that they might be viewed as things we share rather than things that divide us. At its best, Latinologues suggests that the same holds true for comedy.

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