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Nilo & Trey

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk. Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz has a great gift for language and a wonderful instinct for good dramatic situations. He also has a Pulitzer Prize-which he won last year for his play Anna in the Tropics.

The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, like many theaters around the country, is staging an earlier Cruz work this season. Playing in Balboa Park right now is Two Sisters and a Piano, a 1998 play that was seen at South Coast Rep five years ago.

Two Sisters is based on a little known, but interesting bit of recent Cuban history: the in-house confinement of poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela. Varela was one of Cuba-s most esteemed literary figures, but after writing an anti-Castro manifesto she was placed under house arrest.

Two Sisters and a Piano is a fictionalized version of Varela-s story. The plot involves the Varela surrogate (now called Maria Celia Obispo) and the one man allowed to entered her confined quarters: the lieutenant who apprehended her. Naturally, passions ignite and soon the relationship between captor and prisoner becomes a metaphor for Castro and the Cuban people.

Two Sisters, like Anna in the Tropics, is a play bursting with potential. Unfortunately, Sisters, even more than Anna, never comes together as a complete and satisfying dramatic whole. Part of the problem is the way the playwright handles the political themes in his work. Cruz-s plays always deal with politics, but he clearly wants them to be in the background. With an heaven-sent cast, perhaps the politics could be viewed as subtext; yet, the foreground situations are so reliant on the sexual chemistry between the main characters, like Anna and the lector, or here between Maria and Lieutenant Portoundo, that if any of the actors are less then overwhelmingly charismatic, then the dramatic situation begins to resemble an over-heated romance novel and soft-pedaling the political themes starts to feel like naivet- rather than subtlety.

At the Globe, the small cast is fine, but not exciting. All are very clearly play-acting and none of them truly inhabit their roles-when they aren-t speaking their lines, there is little that shows the strain of living under years of Castro-s rule. Only Philip Hernandez (as the lieutenant) gives a sense of real anguish, yet he-s never truly menacing. He always seems like a nice guy at heart, which robs the play of a good deal of tension

The cast is not helped by the staging. Like the recent productions of Anna on Broadway and at South Coast Rep, Two Sisters is given a spare almost minimalist treatment. The play takes place in a spacious colonial house, so an expansive, if not lavishly crumbling set would seem best for evoking the intellectual decay and imprisonment of the Obispo sisters (and by extension, the Cuban middle class). The tiny stage and unimaginative set at the Globe suggest that Cruz-s words are so strong they don-t any need help from production design-but it-s a rare play, even if written by a Pulitzer winner, that doesn-t need some stagecraft to assist the text.

One of those rare plays is finishing its run here in Los Angeles. A small theater and minimal set design may have not worked for Two Sisters and a Piano, but it fits L. Trey Wilson-s new play Stage Directions just fine.

Stage Directions is piece of low-budget theater about putting on a piece of low-budget theater-which makes it sound exactly like countless other incestuous and navel-gazing plays that give L.A.-s small theaters a bad name. But Stage Directions is the real thing: a complex and interesting dramatic work that doesn-t rely on performance or production gimmicks to succeed.

Stage Directions originated at the Ford Theater, and like another work that received its world premiere there this season, The Shaggs, it is a piece that would play very well off-Broadway. This weekend is the last chance to see it here in Los Angeles; it runs at the Odyssey Theatre through Sunday. Two Sisters and a Piano continues at the Cassius Carter Center Stage in San Diego through April 11.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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