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Cuba & His Teddy Bear (07/16/1986 - 09/21/1986)


New York Daily News: "Father Knows Worst"

"Cuba and His Teddy Bear" opened originally at the Public/Susan Stein Shiva Theatre May 18, 1986. It transferred to the Longacre Theatre on July 16.

"Cuba and His Teddy Bear," which opened a short sold-out engagement at the Public last evening after a string of sold-out previews, is a sort of lowlife "Father Knows Best" with Robert De Niro as an excitable pop.

The first play by 26-year-old Reinaldo Povod is a comedy, despite the fact that the father figure, a native Cuban, is a drug peddler who has done time. In fact, though it's tiresomely long, it's very close to farce.

Cuba (De Niro) has hoped to raise his teenage son Teddy (Ralph Macchio) honestly by doing his apartment drug dealing, accompanied by occasional snorts of coke, right out in the open.

When Cuba isn't punching the wall or pacing up and down or cursing out his supplier pal Jackie (Burt Young), he's pushing Teddy around and yelling at him for just sitting there thinking.

What Teddy is thinking about is being a writer; he is inspired by a drug-addicted Hispanic playwright named Che (Michael Carmine), who won a Tony sometime back. But Cuba doesn't approve of this friendship, insisting that if Teddy wants to shoot up, he should do it with his dad.

Actually, Teddy, who does try shooting up, doesn't want to do drugs, alcohol or any crime, and has little use for anything Spanish, including the music and language.

But this badly written and poorly motivated play dawdles on, with repetitive gab about a promised coke deal for Cuba and the possible unloading of two pounds of pot by Jackie.

None of these things come to pass - the melodramatic flourishes in the second half include Cuba's attempt to shoot himself and his partial desecration of the saint's statue occupying a prominent place in the seedy flat.

In the end, everybody's played out, including the audience. While De Niro gives one of his characteristically physical performances, his speech and demeanor (in spite of his cologne and plastered-back long hair) is about as Hispanic as his Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."

For a while, the De Niro energy is arresting, but it soon grows wearing and his acting skills are wasted on this cartoon character.

Young contributes solid comic relief in the role of the chubby supplier, and a happily stoned neighbor named Redlights (Nestor Serrano) and his dancing girl friend Lourdes (Wanda De Jesus), also provide a few light moments.

But young Macchio is awkward throughout. Only Carmine's Che, a shabbily zoot-suited figure, carries any true conviction.

Bill Hart's direction only emphasizes the play's weakness through its hyped-up action and speech (though I would guess De Niro shaped many of his own lines, especially the hammering repetitions). Set, costumes and lighting are adequate.

"A man must descend very low to find the force to rise again" runs a Hasidic quotation in the program. But it didn't appear that this message had gotten through to any of the bunch lying about in Cuba's place after a hard night's work.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "De Niro & Co. shoot the works"

"Cuba and His Teddy Bear" opened originally at the Public/Susan Stein Shiva Theatre May 18, 1986. It transferred to the Longacre Theatre on July 16.

Life is tough - particularly if you are a drug addict. For that matter, life's pretty tough even if you are a dealer. But it is a life. And junkies and pushers are people.

And that is virtually the burden of the drug-infested Lower East Side story that 26-year-old Reinaldo Povod has to tell in his striking first full-length play, Cuba and His Teddy Bear, which opened last night at the Public Theater, wherein (to much publicity) a Raging Bull (Robert De Niro) encountered a Karate Kid (Ralph Macchio).

Ever since Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, right at the beginning of the century, our theater has played various variations on themes of seamy naturalism, and Mr. Povod is here adding some Hispanic cooking to a slice of life on the wrong side of the needle tracks.

Not that the scene, and even the characters, are not at least partially familiar. But Mr. Povod seems to write straight from the ear, and his play vibrates and tingles with an authority that goes beyond the cleverly applied local color of mere verismo atmosphere, into truth.

There is no real plot; things happen, but in chaos rather than order, and at the end nothing is resolved, nothing fundamental has changed. No tidy ends have been wrapped around a dramatic bundle.

Cuba (De Niro) is a smalltime Cuban dope dealer - chiefly in cocaine, but with a little marijuana on the side. His main supplier and best friend, Jackie (Burt Young), is a fat Jewish slob who, like Cuba, is struggling to make a dishonest living.

Cuba, with his finicky regard for the way he looks, his macho manner, and amoral aggressiveness, could be any dope hustler, except for one thing - he has a 16-year-old son Teddy (Macchio), whom he adores, and, in his odd, topsy-turvy way, tries to protect.

The kid wants to be a writer, and falls under the spell of Hispanic playwright turned addict Che (Michael Carmine), who once won a Tony on Broadway, but is now a bum, sleeping in the park and watching the shooting stars.

Che has introduced Teddy to heroin, and casually tries to seduce him. But there are various bungled dope deals, threats, and betrayals, before the father discovers that his son has started to shoot dope.

The play meanders through this oddly domesticated and seemingly normal sub-world of drugs ith a miasmic sense of reality.

The detailing is precise and specific, starting with the marvelously accurate setting by Donald Eastman and costumes by Gabriel Berry, and continuing through the meticulously observed characters.

Cuba, with his fierce love for his son and dead mother, his unapologetic lifestyle, his superstitious version of religion, his doomed sense of God's retribution, is matched by the other characters, all just as aptly rounded.

And, as directed by Bill Hart's fine-focused sense of ensemble, the performances are exquisite.

Mr. De Niro, slicked hair tied back in ponytail, boxer-like body encased in a cheap Pierre Cardin suit, pushes his way through the play like a bulldozer, and Mr. Young, oozing unctuously with fake good nature, provides just the right buffoonish counterweight.

Young Mr. Macchio (well-known for his movies and TV, but here making his assured stage debut) makes the boy very sensitively sensitive without any phony sentiment, and the rest of the cast, including Mr. Carmine as the doped-out playwright, Paul Calderon as a creepy and dangerous dealer, Nestor Serrano as a coke-happy client, and Wanda de Jesus as the latter's Latino-spitfire girl, is excellent.

Like drugs, I guess the play promises more than it eventually delivers. The denizens of Mr. Povod's world are just a little too predictable, and in the event, its own events interest rather than illuminate.

But this is an important debut, and a play that grips you with its tendrils of actuality. The sound has not been turned up, the colors have not been heightened; this, you feel, is the way it was, or could have been.

New York Post

New York Times: "Cuba and His Teddy Bear"

"Cuba and His Teddy Bear" opened originally at the Public/Susan Stein Shiva Theatre May 18, 1986. It transferred to the Longacre Theatre on July 16.

Bearded, swathed in a beach towel, Robert De Niro is Joseph Cuba, drug dealer and indulgent father. His son, Teddy (Ralph Macchio), is, at 16, a would-be poet of the streets. Together they are ''Cuba and His Teddy Bear,'' the central characters in Reinaldo Povod's play, which opened last night at the Public Theater.

Ritualistically dressing for action, with his son as his valet (even to ironing his father's shirt), Mr. De Niro is like a bullfighter preparing himself to enter the ring. In this and other ways, the actor amasses character detail, and, as the play slowly proceeds, he gives Cuba stage life.

Mr. De Niro is a brilliant actor, an unpredictable amalgam of threatened violence and tenderness, and, in his return to the stage after too long an absence, he reveals an earthy naturalness and an ability to extinguish his own star charisma. Artfully, he subordinates himself within a company of actors.

There are two things that he is unable to do. Despite his hirsute resemblance to Fidel Castro, he never seems Hispanic and he cannot make Cuba's story compelling. The play has atmospheric authenticity and the acting, on almost all counts, benefits from a behavioral reality. But at its core, this is an overly schematic story about an illiterate immigrant father and his misunderstood son. Both the plot and the morality of the tale are imprecise, while the play itself is too long for its limited dimension.

The father believes that drug dealing is on a higher level than drug addiction. From his point of view, he is performing a professional service and making money in order to improve his son's status. He has never hidden his occupation; therefore, his son should respect him. If the youth should ever want to try drugs, he says, he should not do it on the streets but with his father, just as the two once went to ball games together.

Actually, the son is already experimenting with heroin - in emulation of his idol, a Tony Award-winning ''playwright junkie.'' For a long time, the father is as oblivious of the son's drug problem as he is of his artistic leanings; he even forgets the youth's exact age. More important to him are such concerns as keeping his house in order and praying before a religious statuette on a corner cabinet. Late in the second act, there is a showdown between father and son, a scene that momentarily ignites the play, but it remains only a scene, not a catharsis or a climax.

Mr. Povod successfully recreates the kitchen-sink ambiance, and he is well-served by Bill Hart's unvarnished production (Gabriel Berry's colorful costumes are a distinct asset). Despite the potential explosiveness of the situation, however, the play has a tendency toward lassitude. ''Cuba and His Teddy Bear'' lacks the vibrancy of, for example, Miguel Pinero's ''Short Eyes,'' which also dealt with the Hispanic underclass.

Mr. Pinero's name comes to mind in another respect. Michael Carmine, in the role of the playwright, not only looks like Mr. Pinero, but he also seems to be wearing one of his ''Miami Vice'' costumes. Though the character sounds like a parody, Mr. Carmine gives him a swaggering identity. Announcing his artistic credentials while boasting of his talent as a thief, he insists that he is not a cliche like Cuba himself. Cuba is not a cliche, but for all Mr. De Niro's sensitivity, the role is nowhere in a class with his memorable film characters.

Burt Young, the trainer in the endless ''Rocky'' movies, has a shaggy affability and humor as Mr. De Niro's partner and lackey, a man who seems to radiate in his friend's aura. Mr. Young is especially amusing as he expresses his concern over the war between father and son while never losing his anxiety about a missing packet of marijuana. He is also a physical foil to the immaculate Mr. De Niro, sheepishly pulling up the wide waistband of his loud shorts while insisting that he is not fat but has ''big bones.''

The other actors, Nestor Serrano, Paul Calderon and Wanda De Jesus, are resonant of New York's Lower East Side - with one exception, Mr. Macchio as the anguished son. The character is supposed to be in awe of his father, but, in his stage debut, Mr. Macchio (from ''The Karate Kid'') is too self-conscious. One is aware that he is ''acting'' - in contrast to the others in the cast. There is, however, little that he can do with the character's prosaic dialogue.

Even before it opened, ''Cuba and His Teddy Bear'' sold out its entire run, encouraging the producer, Joseph Papp, to televise performances on closed circuit to a secondary paying audience. The justifiable reason for the interest is Mr. De Niro, but the play also offers theatergoers an opportunity to appreciate the performances of Mr. Young, Mr. Carmine and others - and the emerging voice of a new playwright. Mr. Povod is indeed fortunate in his first professional production.

New York Times

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