The heady aroma of cigar smoke fills the stage of Broadway's Royale Theatre during a bewitching moment in "Anna in the Tropics," Nilo Cruz's dreamy, poetic rumination on art and life.
It's Florida 1929 and the Cuban-American owners and workers in a Tampa cigar factory are savoring their finest effort, a new cigar called "Anna Karenina," named after the heroine of Tolstoy's famous novel.
The Russian author's tale of a doomed love affair has played a tantalizing part in their daily lives. While they hand roll cigars, a lector, a man hired out of their own wages, has been reading "Anna Karenina" to them.
Cruz's richly embroidered play, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize fordrama, deals with the effect the novel has on these people. It's not a heavy-handed allegory, but rather an emotional, personal story, grounded in a little-known historical fact - the tradition of the lector.
It's this lector and the responses of these workers to "Anna Karenina" that fascinate the playwright - and us.
Expectations were high for "Anna in the Tropics" because of the Pulitzer, and director Emily Mann's version, first seen earlier in the season at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., fulfills them admirably.
Mann has put together a ripe, erotically charged production, beautifully acted and played out on a simple yet handsome wooden setting, designed by Robert Brill. It's filled with shadows and bursts of light, evocatively created by Peter Kaczorowski.
"Anna" borders on melodrama but it's effective melodrama as we watch the interaction of three couples, whose ages span several generations, and how they deal with romantic entanglements, real and imagined.
And hovering over them is the lector, played by the debonair Jimmy Smits, a manly vision of courtliness and charm. He's sort of a Latin Harold Hill (of "Music Man" fame) who awakens the possibility of living life to the fullest in at least a few of these people.
At the center of all this yearning is the distraught Conchita (a wonderful Daphne Rubin-Vega), whose marriage to the philandering Palomo (John Ortiz) seems to be falling apart. She finds solace –and more - in the lector.
Then there's the matriarch of the family, Ofelia, whose husband (Victor Argo) is in danger of losing control of the factory to his embittered half brother, Cheche. The practical Ofelia, portrayed by a commanding Priscilla Lopez, has a zest for living, one that energizes her children as well as her helpmate.
The jealous sibling (David Zayas) wants to modernize the factory, bringing in machines to make the cigars and, in turn, doing away with the lector himself. A new world is threatening not only the factory but the family as well.
For comic relief and a bit of heartbreak, too, there is the innocent Marela, the youngest daughter, played by a delightful Vanessa Aspillaga. It's the romantic Marela who is given some of Cruz's most expressive language - dialogue bursting with poetry and flights of outrageous fancy as she swoons over the lector and the story of "Anna Karenina." That lush language confirms an important new voice has arrived in the mainstream of American theater.
Many years ago, lamenting some recent flop, I asked one of the Wise Men of the Theater if there weren't people you could call in who could fine-tune a play the way a good mechanic can fix an ailing car.
"You're being nostalgic," the Wise Man said.
I was reminded of this exchange as I watched Nilo Cruz's "Anna in the Tropics," which won the Pulitzer Prize last spring. For the first time, the judges made their decision simply by reading it.
It is easy to see why they were drawn to it. its premise is wonderful: In Florida cigar factories, the workers themselves, immigrants from the Caribbean, used to hire a lector to read to them as they worked.
Cruz's lector, Juan Julian, elegantly played by Jimmy Smits, compares his work to that of an Indian chief translating the sacred words of the gods to "those who listen quietly."
Some of the workers want their factory, near Tampa in 1929, to be mechanized. Juan Julian warns them the machines would drown out his words. Sure enough, in the Depression, lectors were replaced by radios.
Juan Julian is reading these workers "Anna Karenina," and the plot reflects the power of Tolstoy's writing on this little community.
At one time, the producer or director would have helped Cruz shape his idea into a taut play. The current production, directed by Emily Mann, does not sharpen its focus.
In one scene, for example, a husband whose wife is having an affair with Juan Julian asks her to describe their lovemaking. Only later do we learn that the husband may be gay, which is why he himself has not made love to her and why he craves details about his rival's skills.
If we sensed this motivation earlier, the scene might have a chilling, erotic quality. Here it just falls flat.
Smits brings a sensual charge to the stage, and Daphne Rubin-Vega has great poignance as his lover. Vanessa Aspillaga is touching as a worker with a crush on the lector, and Priscilla Lopez has fiery humor as the factory owner's wife.
Cruz's writing often has a poetry worthy of his theme, and the scenes are bridged by guitar music that evokes the world he describes. Too often, however, the production falls short of its poetic images.
Tolstoy and Cuban cigars are an intriguing mix. Together they provide the background to Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Anna in the Tropics," starring Jimmy Smits, which opened last night at the Royale Theatre.
The "Anna," of course, is Tolstoy's doom-swept heroine Anna Karenina, and while Tampa, Fla., where the play is set, hardly seems like the "Tropics," it makes a fascinating title for a moderately fascinating play.
The time is 1929, when the United States was on the cusp of modernity and the edge of the Depression. Outside Tampa, in a place called Ybor City, Cuban cigar manufacturers set up factories, complete with old-country traditions ranging from cockfighting to lectors who read to the workers as they rolled cigars.
It's a lovely historical concept that Cruz captures for this slender story of forbidden love, which –aptly enough for a cigar factory - goes up in smoke. Gunsmoke.
Juan Julian (the effortlessly accomplished Smits, a TV star and theater veteran) has come as a lector, invited from Cuba by Ofelia (the delicious Priscilla Lopez), wife of the factory owner, and gambler, Santiago (Victor Argo).
Juan decides to read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," and this tale of passionate adultery becomes a kind of template for the love affair between himself and Santiago's eldest daughter, Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who's locked in an unfulfilling marriage with Palomo (John Ortiz).
Yet the story and its telling are far more Chekhov than Tolstoy. Santiago's younger daughter Marela (Vanessa Aspillaga) is rejected by Juan, and assaulted by her father's half-brother, the discontented Cheche (David Zayas).
This is the kind of play where atmosphere is all.
Director Emily Mann, using an almost vestigial, cigar-box setting by Robert Brill, elegantly period costuming by Anita Yavitch, and an impeccable cast, manages to give this fundamentally thin if poetic play a certain texture suggesting weight.
The performances from top to bottom are totally convincing. Smits - stylish, slightly remote, as haughty as an Hispanic Eugene Onegin (how these Russians keep intruding!) - is superb. So, too, are Rubin-Vega as the errant wife, Ortiz as the wronged and puzzled husband, and Aspillaga as a young girl with a fragile heart and a lively imagination.
Should this play have won the Pulitzer Prize? There have been worse winners - and better ones.
That slowly rotating ceiling fan isn't the only thing stirring the air in Nilo Cruz's ''Anna in the Tropics,'' the earnestly poetic play that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama and is only now making its New York debut.
Currents of longing, thick with hope and hopelessness, eddy through the atmosphere in the warmly acted production that opened last night at the Royale Theater, with a cast led by Jimmy Smits. Every breath seems to emerge as a sigh, every word as an aspiration to the unobtainable.
In evoking the lost Cuban-American world of a Florida cigar factory in 1929, Mr. Cruz has created a work as wistful and affectingly ambitious as its characters. ''Anna in the Tropics'' reaches for the artistic heavens -- specifically, that corner of eternity occupied by the plays of Anton Chekhov, where yearning is an existential condition.
Like the romance-drunk souls who inhabit it, ''Anna'' finds that its reach exceeds its grasp. And while the ensemble members bring an engaging sincerity to their roles, Emily Mann's straightforward staging does not show off Mr. Cruz's sometimes clumsy lyricism to its best advantage.
Yet there's a nobility and emotional energy in the striving that set this drama apart from most other new plays on Broadway. And thanks to Mr. Smits (of ''L.A. Law'' and ''N.Y.P.D. Blue''), as a dapper Cuban émigré, and Daphne Rubin-Vega (of the original cast of ''Rent''), as his adulterous lover, ''Anna'' also exudes something even more elusive on Broadway these days: the glow of sexual chemistry.
Although Mr. Cruz's tone is definitely Chekovian in its sense of a gentle, premodern world on the brink of extinction, the Anna of the play's title refers to a creation by another Russian writer: Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Mr. Cruz ingeniously builds his drama around the now exotic-seeming profession of the lector, who reads aloud to entertain workers engaged in monotonous tasks.
That's the job of Juan Julian (Mr. Smits), a newly impoverished Cuban aristocrat who shows up at a cigar plant near Tampa, Fla., on the eve of the Great Depression.
Dashingly clad in white linen (the handsome period costumes are by Anita Yavich), Juan Julian arrives bearing books, including ''Anna Karenina.'' In exploring the ways in which Tolstoy's great story of irrational love mirrors and shapes the lives of its listeners, ''Anna'' becomes a hymn to the transforming and potentially dangerous powers of art.
It is also, as Tolstoy's novel is, a consideration of the forms of love. The cigar plant's owners, Ofelia (Priscilla Lopez) and Santiago (Victor Argo), are a long-married couple, quarrelsome but contented. Their daughters are more restless. Conchita (Ms. Rubin-Vega) writhes beneath her bonds to a cheating husband, Palomo (John Ortiz), while the virginal Marela (Vanessa Aspillaga) awaits deliverance from the sort of man who exists only in dreams.
Filling out this uneasy family portrait is Cheché (David Zayas), Santiago's half-brother, whose wife ran away with the factory's previous lector. His resentment and frustration feed the fever of a hothouse environment.
The resulting confrontations and collisions are rendered in some of the most densely lyrical language from an American playwright since Maxwell Anderson. No one, it seems, is able to speak without summoning a poetic conceit. Living in Tampa is like being in ''the mouth of a crocodile.'' Ofelia's heart is like a swimming seal. A lover asks his beloved, ''How does one read the story of your hair?'' There is also talk about the similarities of love and tobacco plants, not to mention the bread crumbs of ''pride and dignity,'' carried away by a procession of metaphoric ants.
All those abstract bread crumbs, and their equivalents, can really clutter up a play. On the page, such rhetoric scans better than it does on the stage. (It makes sense that the Pulitzer judges awarded the prize to ''Anna'' without having seen it performed.) In a less literal-minded physical production, the ornate tropes might seem less obtrusive. But Ms. Mann, who staged ''Anna'' earlier this year at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., where she is the artistic director, fails to find the dramatic equivalents to Mr. Cruz's prose.
The performers often look small and adrift against Robert Brill's stark wooden set, with pitiless sunlike lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Even as their speech swirls into labyrinths, the characters are most often arranged into horizontal lines. The contrast is presumably deliberate, to emphasize the gap between tender fantasy and harsh reality.
But such naturalism also exposes the unnaturalness in Mr. Cruz's writing, and you become overly aware of how everyone speaks the same artificial language, even when it doesn't suit the individual character. ''Anna'' could do with a bit more of the phantasmal quality in the exquisite seduction scene that concludes Act I.
The performances, especially those of the women, come closer to capturing the haunted musicality that Mr. Cruz is aiming for. The three female characters in ''Anna'' temperamentally evoke Chekhov's eponymous three sisters. (It's no coincidence that Marela dreams of visiting Moscow, just like the title characters in one of Mr. Cruz's earlier works, ''Two Sisters and a Piano.'') And each of the actresses brings out appropriately Chekovian shadows of regret and muted desire.
Ms. Lopez, best known as the original Morales of ''A Chorus Line,'' adroitly balances social snobbery and familial affection, and her scenes with Mr. Argo are redolent of the comfort and irritation of a well-worn relationship. Ms. Aspillaga's Marela is heartbreaking in her enthusiasm and self-consciousness.
Wondering and sly at the same time, Ms. Rubin-Vega's beautifully drawn Conchita seems poised on the edge of unspeakable rapture and despair as she listens to Juan Julian read. And Mr. Smits matches her with a mixture of courtliness and naïveté that finds both innocence and depravity in their relationship.
''There's nothing like reading a winter book in the middle of the summer,'' Ofelia notes early in the play. Similarly, for all its imperfections, ''Anna in the Tropics'' brings a welcome streak of heat to an especially forbidding November.
Freud would have had a field day with the parade of images in Anna in the Tropics (* * 1/2 out of four). Cigars are licked and puffed, guns toted and fired; there's even a giddy cockfight. You half expect a woman to come galloping in on horseback with a Popsicle stick in her mouth.
Clearly, it wasn't playwright Nilo Cruz's subtlety that earned him a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. But Anna garnered that surprise honor on the basis of how the text read; the play had only received one modest staging at that point. I suspect that this new production, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Royale Theatre, owes its obviousness as much to director Emily Mann as it does to Cruz's lyrical but unabashedly sentimental script.
That script focuses on Juan Julian, who in 1929 travels from Cuba to Tampa to work as a "lector," reading aloud to the Latino immigrants who do manual labor in a cigar factory. Cultured, compassionate and dashingly handsome, Juan Julian naturally hits it off right away with Ofelia, the proprietor's wife, and her two grown daughters, the girlish Marela and the alluring Conchita.
But while Ofelia's affable husband, Santiago, also takes a shine to the visitor, other men in the establishment are less enchanted. Santiago's half-brother Cheche's wife ran off with another lector, and Conchita's husband, Palomo, doesn't like the effect that Juan Julian's recitations from Anna Karenina are having on his missus.
"So what character would you identify with in the novel?" John Ortiz's almost comically overstated Palomo asks Juan Julian accusingly, during a scene in which they and the others drink, dance, leer and, yes, blow exultant rings of cigar smoke.
Parallels and contrasts between these flagrantly sensuous characters and Tolstoy's tortured Russians are established, and most of what ensues is predictable, despite a few twists.
Mann does little to heighten the suspense, or to rein in the histrionic tendencies of certain cast members.
Daphne Rubin-Vega's bleating Conchita becomes tiresome, while Vanessa Apillaga's Marela suggests a sweet-natured but overbearing child.
Luckily, Jimmy Smits is more effective in the central role, investing Juan Julian with the easy warmth and unassuming virility that the part requires. Victor Argo gives an equally effortless, endearing performance as Santiago, and Priscilla Lopez's Ofelia, though more flamboyant, is credible and charming.
Thanks to these performances, and the grace and good will underlying Cruz's breathless romanticism, Anna in the Tropics finally offers more than just steamy metaphors.
Win a Pulitzer Prize, go directly to Broadway. That's the natural trip taken by "Anna in the Tropics," Nilo Cruz's play about workers in a Florida cigar factory falling under the spell of Tolstoy's doorstop novel about a doomed romance. But, unlike those happy families in "Anna Karenina's" celebrated opening line, all Pulitzer Prize-winning plays are not alike. On the evidence of this production, it seems Cruz's subtly spiced period drama is not ideally suited to Broadway. The play's emotional dynamics would be better served by an embracing, intimate space -- its delicate fabric feels stretched to a wispy thinness on the stage of the Royale Theater. And yet the venue alone is not to blame for the play's mild impact, more sleepy than steamy. The creamy texture of Cruz's writing tends to curdle in Emily Mann's coarse-grained production.
The play's milieu and subject matter are enticing and exotic. At a factory run by a family of Cuban immigrants, employees are entertained by a "lector" who reads aloud from novels as they work. In this case, the novel chosen by the dreamy, handsome new lector, played by the silken Jimmy Smits, is Tolstoy's classic. Immersion in the novel's sweeping romance provides a happy escape from the mundane chores at hand, the rolling of cigars and sorting of tobacco leaves. And as those in the factory are caught up in its story -- willingly or not -- the book begins working variously subtle and profound changes in their emotional lives.
The factory's owner, Santiago, has lost his way in life through addictions to gambling and alcohol. His wife Ofelia has withdrawn into a pose of mild contempt. But their antagonism begins to thaw as Santiago rediscovers through the character of Levin the eager, ambitious young man he once was. Their eldest daughter, Conchita, is even more powerfully affected by the novel, seeing all too clearly in it the pattern of her own withering marriage. She tries to prod her straying husband Palomo into acknowledging the uncomfortable similarities. When he rebuffs her, she defiantly embarks on her own affair with the new lector. Conchita's younger sister, Marela, is also seduced by the beautiful sound of Juan Julian's voice and watches in painful rapture his dalliance with Conchita.
The lector's influence extends beyond the personal to the political. Cheche, Santiago's brother, is pushing for reforms at the factory, which is slowly falling behind as modernizing reforms take hold in the industry. (The year is 1929.) He wants to bring in machines to facilitate the work. The lector, whose voice could never be heard above the clanging of metal, becomes the eloquent spokesman for and symbol of tradition, the rhythms and rituals of the past: "The truth is that machines, cars, are keeping us from taking walks and sitting on park benches, smoking a cigar slowly and calmly," he tells Cheche. "So you see, Chester, you want modernity, and modernity is actually destroying our very own industry."
The play's intricate but clear patterns are drawn with a pleasing fluidity, and Cruz's dialogue is often entrancingly lovely, save when it strays into labored, archly poetic image-mongering. (When Juan told Conchita, "Sometimes I see sad trees in your eyes after we make love," I assumed, and certainly hoped, I had misheard. Get the girl some Visine!) But in scene after scene, fine writing is undercut by one-dimensional performances that land on the emotional notes in the play far too bluntly, flattening out the contrasting or conflicting undercurrents that would give the characters -- and the play -- depth, subtlety and dimension.
The scene in which Daphne Rubin-Vega's Conchita engages in a sly game of verbal seduction with Juan Julian is just one example. Conchita tells of a ritual in which Cuban girls would ask a favorite young man to bury a lock of their hair as an offering to nature, and Juan plays along, volunteering to take the responsibility. The dialogue is boldly rich and suggestive. "If I were your husband, I would find an old, wise banyan tree and I would bury your hair by its roots, and I'm sure it would accept the offering like rainwater," Juan says. Played, as it is here, with a swoony intensity, it threatens to topple into parody.
Rubin-Vega's performance begins promisingly. In the early scenes she suggests as no one else does the simmering, conflicted feelings soon to be unleashed by her fascination with the novel. But soon the simmering turns to a steady boil, and Conchita becomes an enraptured adulteress from a telenovela, panting with emotion. Smits' Juan has an apt, casually elegant presence, but he seems suspiciously aware of his status as a romantic cynosure and poet laureate of the vanishing old world.
Other performances are flat and lacking in multiple dimensions (Priscilla Lopez's Ofelia and Victor Argo's Santiago), or more severely miscalculated. David Zayas is far too much the heavy as Cheche. The actor should have been encouraged to play against the character's surface qualities -- his brooding anger and resentment at the lector, his brutishness -- to reveal the humanity that Cruz clearly intends the character to have. Cheche's frustrated affection for Marela should be sad, pathetic maybe, but not repellent.
Then again, Vanessa Aspillaga's Marela is too strident and shrill to strike the deeply poignant notes she should. (Perhaps taking the safest route to win over an audience in a large house, Mann has allowed the actors to harvest obvious laughs, a decision that coarsens the play's dreamy texture.) John Ortiz, like Zayas a member of the hot Labyrinth Theater Co., is likewise lacking in subtlety as the cuckolded Palomo; he should be conflicted and confused -- after all, he all but condones his wife's relationship with the lector -- but for the most part, Ortiz plays him like a stereotypical jealous Latin lover.
The physical production, sad to say, does not provide the atmosphere that might draw us into the drama in spite of the overly blunt orchestration. On the contrary, Robert Brill's no-frills, wood-slatted set gives the play a sparse, underpopulated look; you're aware of the actors straying around the stage to fill space, when a sense of oppressive emotional intimacy is needed to drive the play to its foreordained violent conclusion. A lone ceiling fan, looking like a forlorn last bud on a barren tree, labors fruitlessly to suggest the steamy atmosphere of a Florida summer. (The production came straight from the McCarter Theater's new 300-seat theater, where its design must have worked better.)
"Anna in the Tropics" is the second promising American play in as many weeks to arrive on Broadway in a production that doesn't do it full justice. Richard Greenberg's "The Violet Hour" was likewise undermined by an indelicate execution. But in this case the dimensions -- and demands -- of a Broadway theater are probably as much to blame as an underrealized production. It may be that the play's gentle texture -- wistful, elegiac, dreamy -- would always be dissipated on a Broadway stage, like a subtle perfume borne away by a heavy wind.