Magical Lyricism

As any wine lover can tell you, an excellent vintage is really two wines in one. When first opened, it may have a lovely, fresh bouquet and a satisfying taste. But allowed to breathe, a great wine will develop subtle complexities, new depth, and lingering flavors. That's an apt analogy for Nilo Cruz's magical, compelling Anna in the Tropics, in its world premiere at the New Theatre under the elegant direction of Rafael de Acha. With rich poetic language and dark sexual power, Anna in the Tropics echoes Spanish master Federico Garcia Lorca (some of whose works Cruz has recently translated into English) as well as Tennessee Williams. It is not hyperbole to link Cruz with such company. Redolent with seductive imagery and intriguing ideas, this is a play to be savored now and in later productions, when it will surely develop and mature.

De Acha and company have uncorked a tale set near Tampa in 1929, where a family of Cuban cigar manufacturers carries on a handcrafted tradition despite the rise of mechanization in the industry. Factory owners Santiago (Gonzalo Madurga) and his stalwart wife, Ofelia (Edna Schwab), think they can maintain the old ways, but Santiago's Americanized half-brother, Chester, known as Cheche (Ken Clement), is frustrated that they don't see the economic threat they face. Still, instead of investing in rolling machines, Santiago hires a new "lector," the handsome Juan Julian (David Perez-Ribada), a professional reader who provides entertainment for the workers as they roll cigars by hand hour upon hour.

Juan Julian's decision to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a gorgeous novel about an adulterous romance, throws the community into a tumult as the power of the novel's words affects everyone. Santiago decides to create a new cigar named after the title character, and younger daughter Marela (Ursula Freundlich) is thrilled when she is picked to pose for the logo. Older daughter Conchita (Deborah L. Sherman) sees a mirror of Anna's affair in her own marriage to the adulterous, unromantic Palomo (Carlos Orizondo). And Cheche is tormented as well, recalling the breakup of his own marriage when his wife ran off with the previous lector. Soon literature turns into reality as Conchita defies Palomo and begins an affair with Juan Julian, a choice that points toward passion and possible doom.

The beautifully staged play starts off with contrapuntal scenes. To one side, the women, carefully dressed and coifed, stand on a pier awaiting the arrival of the lector's ship. To the other side, the men huddle around a cockfight, placing bets and swilling rum. De Acha orchestrates these scenes and their atmospheric soundtracks with great style: The dialogue swirls in alternation between the two, then washes together at times. It's a bravura entrance into Cruz's story and the long-ago world he conjures. Later de Acha shifts gears, offering a sparer staging.

Amid the cacophony of Juan Julian's arrival, his first glance at Conchita registers subtly, and her first mention of her husband is not lost on him. Signature moments abound: After a marital confrontation with Conchita, Palomo licks his ring finger and slips off his wedding band, a gesture that's both defiant and erotic, a perfect visualization of their marital crisis. In the production's most effective (and appalling) moment, Cheche confesses to Santiago that Juan Julian's tale of Anna Karenina reminds him of his runaway wife. He begins haltingly, a humiliating confession that suddenly flashes nostalgia, regret, anger, and even deeper despair. But as grief stabs him, he is interrupted by the sudden entrance of Marela, gleefully modeling her costume to pose as Anna Karenina for the cigar logo. Santiago turns his attention to praise his daughter, leaving Cheche utterly abandoned. It's a stunning, dramatic moment, a perfect fit of actor, director, and playwright.

Cruz and de Acha are backed by the New Theatre's regular production team, which turns in superior work all around. Michelle Cumming's set, a bare wooden floor and some straight-backed wooden chairs surrounded by a cloud-flecked blue scrim, has the airy surrealism of a Magritte painting. Travis Neff's delicate lighting and M. Anthony Reimer's evocative music and sound design complement the romantic, magical feel of the play. So do Estela Vrancovich's stylish period costumes, though these are so perfectly pressed and neat, they seem perhaps too surreal for a story centered on hard, sweaty work.

The cast, drawn mostly from the New Theatre's informal acting ensemble, acquits itself well on the whole but seems underrehearsed. As with Chekhov (or Garcia Lorca or Williams), it must be very difficult to bang out a Cruz play, especially a premiere, in the standard two-, three-, or even four-week rehearsal periods that modern theater economics dictate. As Conchita, Deborah L. Sherman is a sultry, long-legged beauty, and she shows the fire and strength she exhibited in last season's The Just Assassins a few blocks over at the Dreamers Theatre. But her Conchita seems less emotionally detailed than the writing suggests, and there isn't much chemistry between Sherman and Perez-Ribada, whose Juan Julian is more stalwart than seductive, despite his handsome profile and bedroom eyes. The play clearly calls for a Juan Julian whose power of language is so beguiling, he entices every ear that hears him. Instead Perez-Ribada opts for an unmodulated sonority that lacks excitement, and he plays Juan Julian as a generic dreamboat without much variety or humor, a curious change from his playful brother in Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, another Cruz premiere at New Theatre last season.

In truth, this central romance is problematic. Why does Juan Julian glom onto Conchita, the married woman, when her sister is ready and available? Is it instant attraction, and if so, why? And why does Conchita step out with Juan Julian immediately after quarreling with her husband? The coincidence suggests that she is using adultery as a deliberate weapon in a marital war, not as an unexpected avenue for self-discovery. Whatever her motive, Conchita is unleashed by her affair, and when she faces down Palomo at the end of the first act, they are at a strange emotional crossroads. Each now knows of the other's affair, and each wants to hurt the other while still desiring the other. But the second act centers more on crimes of a different character. Why does Cruz opt to pull away from his steamy sex triangle just when it is about to venture into uncharted erotic waters? Such speculations could go on and on, not because Cruz's new play is so flawed but because it is so rich.

Like wine and cigars, good theater takes time to develop. Well into its 17th season, the New Theatre has patiently followed traditions that nowadays have fallen out of favor: loyalty to a core acting ensemble and devotion to classical texts combined with a commitment to developing relationships with playwrights. The company has recently been acknowledged by the venerable Drama League as one of the 50 best theaters in the nation. If you're wondering why, Anna in the Tropics will tell you all you need to know.

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Ronald Mangravite