There is much to savor and even more to contemplate in Nilo Cruz's new play, Beauty of the Father, now receiving a visually compelling world premiere at the New Theatre, the third world premiere of a Cruz play at the Coral Gables space in as many seasons. The production offers several pleasures, first and foremost of which is Cruz's poetic, luxuriant language. Listening to Beauty is like floating in a tropical, flower-scented river of words, to use a Cruzian simile. That river may meander and its current may seem awfully slow, but that's really part of its charm. Cruz isn't interested in white-water adventures, in taking you somewhere else in a blinding rush. He's more into exploring the expanding dimensions of emotional and tactile experience. Time slows down in Cruz's plays -- it's meant to -- but awareness heightens. The words, the poetry, and the imagery behind them, when well spoken, become an act of seduction. This writer is into aural sex.
Beauty of the Father traces several of Cruz's recurring themes -- alienation, reconciliation, romantic rivalry, and sex as a confusing, disruptive force -- which were central to his Pulitzer Prize winner, Anna in the Tropics, as well as Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, both of which also preemed at the New. Like those plays, Beauty begins with an arrival from across the sea. In a Spanish seaside village, a sculptor, Emiliano, awaits his long-estranged daughter, Marina, who is coming from the United States to visit him after the death of her mother, Emiliano's ex-wife. Emiliano, who fled the family years before, has constructed a new life as an exile, sculpting and carousing with his sometime-paramour, Paquita. But his deeper needs remain unresolved.
He hungers to reconnect with Marina, but she's wary and distant at first. Emiliano's frustration with Marina increases when she befriends, then begins to flirt with, his protégé and tenant, a young Moroccan immigrant named Hakim. What Marina doesn't know and Emiliano keeps secret is that he is desperately in love with Hakim himself. But that's not Emiliano's only secret. He's also being visited by the ghost of Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet, who, though ever present, is invisible to the other characters. His mysterious entrance into Emiliano's troubled life could spell either salvation or doom.
Much if not all of this story springs from aspects of Cruz's own life, either as reportage, wish fulfillment, or both. Certainly, Cruz is heavily indebted to Lorca's style and sensibilities -- he is haunted by Lorca as surely as Emiliano is -- and the strongest relationship in this play is between Emiliano and Lorca, who adds wry commentary and an impish sense of humor. This comedic impulse also happily infects the other characters. There's a sense of the joy of living in this tale, despite its darker tonalities of betrayal and loss.
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That said, the script could use some work. The poetry at times tips into self-indulgence. Some similes are bewildering: "That smile he had -- like a piece of bread." Huh? Certainly, aspects of the story line could use a tune-up as well. The plot, which seems to drift through much of the play until a rapid series of late-arriving crises, could be helped with more dramatic tension prior to its tempestuous finale. The central element, Marina's discovery of her father's relationship with Hakim, is dispatched in a less-than-potent way when Paquita simply tells Marina what's up. Moreover, Marina is already on to Emiliano's bisexuality, apparently from before the play begins.
Most of these issues swirl around the rather underwritten character of Marina, a good girl who's trying to do the right thing. Marina could use more fire, especially at the start -- her resentment of her father evaporates quickly, and her easy acceptance of the secrets Emiliano is desperately trying to keep from her makes little dramatic sense. Cruz is trying to make sparks fly by striking flint with sea water: This Marina could use some steel.
As with his direction of the other Cruz plays, Rafael de Acha again shows a refined, sensual touch with this material. He uses the tiny stage to good effect, creating some dramatic friezes and isolated spotlights to make dreamlike moods. De Acha keeps wide distances between father and daughter -- Marina plays much of the first act as far as she can get from Emiliano, as if she's pressed against the theater's walls by a repelling force of fear and distrust. Meanwhile, Lorca drifts in and out of scenes like a ghostly emcee, a pleasing contrapposto to the erotic standoff.
The acting company is an uneven blend of the New's regulars and some old cohorts of Cruz's. As Emiliano, the artist in anguish, Roberto Escobar is solid if not scintillating, handling this difficult material with emotional honesty. When Teresa Maria Rojas as Paquita speaks Cruz's poetry, you see her struggling to find the exact word to express what she's feeling. Whether the actual words work as poetry or not doesn't diminish the dramatic effect -- the character is striving to communicate.
This tactic could have better served Ursula Freundlich as Marina, who at times recites her poetry like poetry, acting on the lines but not under or around them. This worked for Freundlich when she played Viola in the New's production of Twelfth Night (another erotically confused lady from the sea). But Cruz isn't Shakespeare -- while both use beautiful imagery, Cruz is no ideologue. His dialogue doesn't have the intellectual weight that Shakespeare's does, and it doesn't sing itself. Some critics have carped that Cruz reads better than he plays. I disagree, but few actors so far have found ways to handle, let alone master, him.
One who does, happily, is Carlos Orizondo as Lorca, and this is easily his best work in memory. Orizondo brings a sly, low-key wit, a deft physicality, and a seemingly effortless way with Cruz's words -- he handles the imagery as lightly as the balloon Lorca carries. Orizondo has heretofore been hampered by a certain dour demeanor that at times comes across as humorless self-importance. Here, he shows a welcome dose of playfulness, which nicely balances all that gravitas.
As Hakim, Euriamis Losada has a boyish charm but little threat or carnal heat. As was the case with Anna, Beauty of the Father is driven by a romantic interloper who is a threat to family order and the object of feminine (and implicit homoerotic) desire. In this, Cruz echoes not Lorca but Tennessee Williams: Think Brando in Streetcar. One might forgive the New for failing to recognize this once, but twice? In the New's post-Pulitzer era, some of its casting is starting to look like indulgence. Also like Anna, Beauty is visually stylish, but the scene work feels sketchy in places -- the love scene between Hakim and Marina couldn't have less spark if it were faxed in. That's not a slap at the actors, who like all artists have to work with what they have or haven't, and what they haven't, I suspect, is time to discover and explore the text.
This leads to a big question for the New: Which of its professed loyalties -- to developing new works or to an ongoing acting ensemble -- is paramount? As the Cruz plays reveal, you can't have it both ways. Some plays require certain actors; if you don't have them in your pocket, look in your back yard, and if they aren't there either, have some shipped in. Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether to move up or stay put. The Pulitzer surprise was the chance of a lifetime -- several lifetimes -- for the New to step into a brave new world of national and international attention, along with the higher expectations and standards such a move must necessarily bring. But if this Beauty is any indication, it's still business as usual down in the Gables. Whether this is conservative wisdom or a huge blown opportunity remains to be seen.
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