Anna in the Tropics, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play born in New Theatre’s tiny space in Coral Gables, has made it to the biggest stage in all of American theater.
Broadway’s Royale Theatre, where Nilo Cruz’s heady mixture of poetic language, vanished tradition and aching passion opened on Sunday evening, is now home to a work that, whatever its fate with New York critics and audiences, will forever have the distinction of being the first play to win drama’s highest honor for a Latino playwright—the Cuban-American Cruz, who spent his formative years and discovered his passion for writing in Miami.
This high-profile production of Cruz’s play about Cuban-American cigar-makers in Ybor City on the eve of the Great Depression was put together in September at the McCarter Theatre Center in nearby Princeton, N.J. The entire cast of that production, including marquee name Jimmy Smits, has come with it to Broadway. Yet it’s obvious, the strong reviews Anna got in Princeton notwithstanding, that the actors and director Emily Mann have continued their work on the play.
On Broadway, Anna in the Tropics is warmer, more vibrant, more detailed than it was in Princeton. The actors have added more flourishes to their performances, taking them up a notch or three to match the scale of the larger, more traditional Royale.
At times, though, they edge a little too close stylistically to telenovela territory. Anna in the Tropics has always had its share of organic, character-driven humor to counterbalance the emotional turbulence and loss that flow through the play.
But if you stood outside the Royale on Friday evening during one of the show’s official press performances, you’d think Cruz had written a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy. It’s appropriate to laugh when younger daughter Marela (Vanessa Aspillaga) is gushing over the factory’s handsome new lector Juan Julian (Smits); it’s excruciating to hear laughter when the second act begins with Juan Julian and Marela’s married sister Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega) making adulterous love on the factory floor. That moment is supposed to be thrilling and passionate, not something that elicits hoots and guffaws, and it’s a sign that Anna has been tweaked too much.
Even so, the power of Cruz’s beautiful, image-filled language sings in the words of actors who obviously connect with it, adore it and understand its musical nuances.
As the lector who reads to the cigar-makers and alters their lives, Smits is sweetly seductive, matinee-idol handsome in a tropical white suit, a man who rides the passion of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to a different tragic ending.
The other men—John Ortiz as Conchita’s cheating husband Palomo, Victor Argo as the depressed factory owner Santiago, David Zayas as his volatile half-brother Cheche—rant and charm and cajole, holding their own against the play’s strong women.
And those women—Aspillaga as the fleshy, dreamily girlish Marela; Rubin-Vega as the wounded, risk-taking Conchita; Priscilla Lopez as their mother Ofelia, a steely but womanly Cuban matriarch—all deserve Tony Award consideration.
The production’s design, from Robert Brill’s spare but exquisite set to Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting (with its suggestions of tropical heat and shuttered windows) to the powerful scene-connecting thrum of a solo guitar, serves as a powerful but unobtrusive frame surrounding the artistry of Cruz’s vivid, inspired linguistic pictures.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Anna in the Tropics, Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz.
WHERE: Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (Tuesday performances change to 7 p.m. beginning Jan. 5).
HOW MUCH: $46.25-$81.25.
TICKETS: 800-432-7250 or [url=http://www.telecharge.com]http://www.telecharge.com[/url]