ANNA IN THE TROPICS will open on Broadway in a few months, but thanks to South Coast Repertory, Southern Californians have a rare chance to see an award-winning work before it opens in New York City.
The subject of ANNA IN THE TROPICS is fascinating--the play is about lectors--men who read literature aloud to workers in cigar factories. In the play, a handsome lector reads "Anna Karenina" and soon the cigar-makers find their lives mirroring Tolstoy's tragic story. It's a wonderful conceit and Cruz's lyrical writing occasionally flirts with poetry; but as a whole, the play is rather conventional.
It would be great to report that South Coast Rep has assembled a cast that brings out the subtler aspects of Cruz's play; but sadly, the staging in Costa Mesa offers little more than a satisfactory reading of the text. The sets and costumes are of high quality, but none of the performers inhabit the lives of their characters. It's as if they're afraid of making the play too vulgar or too entertaining because the words have been anointed as "art" by the Pulitzer committee.
Tony Plana, a local actor well known for his work in ZOOT SUIT and many films, fares best as the patriarch of the factory, imbuing the character of Santiago with a playful dignity. But his role is a supporting one. The key role is that of Marela: a young woman whose innocent faith in literature--and the lector--is the backbone of the entire dramatic situation. The part has the emotional potential of a character like Sonja from Chekhov's VANYA; but the attractive young actress Onahoua Rodriguez is unable to make Marela seem like anything more than a na-ve schoolgirl.
This production suggests that ANNA IN THE TROPICS, despite its honors, is not a major work, but rather a play that hints at better things to come. It must be said that the production headed for Broadway (currently in an out-of-town run at Princeton University) does not fare much better. However, that staging does have star-power (Jimmy Smits plays the lector) as well as two excellent young actors: David Zayas and Vanessa Aspillaga, who illuminate their parts and make the characters shine with human flaws and desires.
Interestingly, the Pulitzer committee made ANNA IN THE TROPICS the winner primarily on the basis of the script, as most of them had not seen the play performed. These two staged versions of Nilo Cruz's play--which is about the power of reading--suggest that perhaps the best way to view ANNA IN THE TROPICS is on the page.
ANNA IN THE TROPICS runs at the new Julianne Argyros Stage through October 25th.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.