It's been something of a mystery how Nilo Cruz's romantic drama "Anna In The Tropics" walked off with the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama over more substantial offerings from Edward Albee ("The Goat or Who Is Silvia?") and Richard Greenberg ("Take Me Out", which follows "Anna" on the Seattle Repertory Theatre's 2004-2005 season). Upon viewing, I have to admit that while the play is enjoyable enough on its own terms, it does tend to fall somewhat short of these more ambitious works. On the other hand, the Pulitzer committee has historically shown a penchant for acknowledging entertaining, but decidedly less-than-earth-shattering fare: "Harvey", "You Can't Take It With You", "Lost In Yonkers", "Driving Miss Daisey", are just a few examples. So, perhaps this simple story of a group of Cuban cigar makers, inspired by Tolstoy's classic romantic tragedy "Anna Karenina" is more the rule than the exception.
Set in Tampa, Florida's cigar district on the eve of the Wall Street crash of 1929, "Anna" follows the lives and romantic entanglements of the workers in a small, family-owned cigar-making business. The men spend the humid evenings drinking and gambling away their earnings, while the women anxiously await the arrival of a handsome new lector, Juan Julian Rios (Bryant Mason) whose job is to read newspaper articles and classical literature to the mostly illiterate workforce. His arrival spurs an already simmering conflict between the factory owner, Santiago (John Herrera) and his half-brother, Chester (Peter Allas) who don't exactly see eye-to-eye on how the business should be run. It also brings to a head the growing disaffection between Santiago's eldest daughter, Conchita (Romi Dias) and her adulterous husband, Palomo (Paolo Andino). As Juan Julian begins his new duties with the reading of Tolstoy's novel, the parallels between the two worlds begin to assert themselves, eventually merging together as each character assumes their pre-destined roles, setting in motion the inevitable tragic consequences.
Those familiar with Tolstoy's novel will already have a pretty good idea how the story plays out (and those who aren't will be helped by Cruz's generous citations), and so will find little in the way of surprises. Still, Cruz does a credible job of translating the action into a more contemporary setting, in the process weaving into it a number of relevent themes (modernism versus traditionalism, romanticism versus pragmatism, sibling rivalry, the changing nature of intimacy), all of which serve to shed light on the emotional lives of the characters. He is less successful, however, in avoiding occasional heavy-handedness, such as telegraphing impending action too loudly, and even resorting to literally transforming one of the characters into a surrogate of Karenina herself, which seems forced and unneccesary. In addition, Otts direction is rather cold and dispassionate, as if she assumed Cruzs text, steeped as it is in Cubano culture, was sufficient to fully communicate the fiery emotions broiling just beneath the skin of the characters. There are occasional flashes of lust, jealousy, and violence but the eruptions never achieve the dramatic heights to which they seem intended. Its as if she has fallen into the trap of thinking of "Anna" as a Russian play, and not as a Latino one.
Fortunately, "Anna"'s greatest strength, aside from the evocatively poetic language, lies in its representation of a lush, erotically tinged landscape. Scenic designer Hugh Landwehr's rotating cigar box of a set allows the action to flow smoothly and seamlessly from one scene to the next, and along with Pete Maradudin's stylized lighting effects, sound by Steve LeGrand and Deb Trout's marvelously sensuous period costumes, the technical elements of this production effortlessly transport the audience into a hot, sultry, sexually charged atmosphere, the sort of place one might envision through the bottom of a glass of rum, punctuated by chillingly refreshing breezes under a moonlit evening sky. It's the perfect complement to Cruz's story, investing "Anna" with a dreamlike quality not unlike the "magical realism" of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Ott may have dropped the ball directorally, but she should be given credit for her strong casting choices. Mason, as the newly arrived lector cuts every inch the cultured romantic figure, from the top of his immaculate white Panama hat to the tips of his two-toned oxfords. As he becomes aware of Conchita's interest in him, his bemused detachment gradually melts away, revealing a passionately romantic soul. Dias matches his performance with a quietly smoldering reserve of her own, and as the two at first dance around each other like wary adversaries, the sexual tension grows palpable. But again, Ott again stumbles in a crucial scene at the top of the second act. When the spark of their desire is inevitably kindled the result should be - well, explosive. But their love making ends so abruptly that it deprives the moment of any sense of two people lost in the throes of passion; the scene becomes all about the mechanics, with little regard for the underlying emotions.
Andino, has a challenge balancing Palomo's off-handed infidelity and his seemingly genuine affection for his wife, but he negotiates it with a thoughtful, sensitive performance that on some levels seems strongly influenced by the characters of Tennessee Williams (Indeed, there's a strong sense of the ghost of William's hovering over much of "Anna"). Allas is saddled with the villian's role, but he manages to breath a fullness of life into his character that deeply humanizes his sense of frustration with his brother's stubborn traditionalism, as well as lending at least a modicum of sympathy for his otherwise predacious advances on his niece, Marela (a vivacious Tanya Perez). Herrera and Maria Elena Ramirez in turn provide much of the comic relief as the contrite gambler and his equally put-upon wife.
Hopefully, Cruz will not take his Pulitzer win too much to heart, especially given the level of his competition. There's little doubt that he has the potential for a distinguished playwrighting career, but one hopes in future he will find the confidence to rely less on his tendency to borrow from his literary forebearers (as was also the case with his earlier work "Beauty Of The Father"), and allow the already rich, poetical voice clearly on display here to flourish on its own merits.
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