For Cuban American playwright Nilo Cruz, every line is poetry, and every couplet speaks to the socio-politics of his roots.
That could mean the lyrical “Anna in the Tropics,” the play that won Cruz the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and its tale of cigar-making Cuban immigrants in Florida and the lector who organized labor forces while reading “Anna Karenina” to his workers. Or it could mean the elegiac “Lorca in a Green Dress” and its mix of social consciousness and the Surrealist subconscious in its pondering of death and an afterlife.
For “Two Sisters and a Piano,” his 1999 political passion play — now directed by Cruz as a streaming work through New Normal Rep — the setting is a hectic Havana on the cusp. Just before the Soviet Union disintegrates, Russians remove themselves from Castro’s Cuba, and heaven and hell are about to burst, circa 1991.
While poetry would normally be the province of the two artist-sisters serving time under house arrest for minor revolutionary crimes — Maria Celia, a novelist, portrayed by Florencia Lozano, and Sofia, a pianist played by Daphne Rubin-Vega – it is Portuondo (Jimmy Smits), a lieutenant assigned to watch their every move and read every correspondence, whose militaristic manner is laced with romantic notions, sensual grace and, eventually, a biting spite ripe with Biblical torpor.
The object of Portuondo’s affection and ire: the lilting, imagistic words of Maria Celia, made manifest in her physical beauty, her revolutionary spirit and her own loving relationship to an exiled, off-screen husband invested in finding political asylum away from Cuba, for his wife and her writing.
So begins the cat-and-mouse interplay between Maria Celia and her lieutenant-jailer-lover Portuondo, a dynamic complicated by Maria Celia’s ties to her forever restless sister, vacillating between ardent rumination and wild bronco-like bucking. Sofia is an object of obsession for piano tuner Victor Manuel, as portrayed by Gary Nunez, a founder of The LAByrinth Theatre Company.
Thus begins the playwright’s curious cultural observations — torrid ties from one generation of forced lockdown, angry misogyny and corrupted power structures to another. Fated to endure this compulsory captivity, from the drama’s alarming, violent beginning to its futile finale, the only true escape for its women-artists come through their vivid imaginations — a notion that finds them reciting, playing and rhapsodizing as often as it finds them talking.
The electrically elegant, personal connectivity here comes in two ways. First, Cruz’s playful poetic language, even at its most harshly politicized, and his easy direction allow his actors a delicious freedom. Even when its characters are not free, enclosed in one cramped apartment with nothing but mangoes, rice and the occasional rum shot (and despite the virtual limitations of a laptop’s viewing screen), “Two Sisters and a Piano” is as open as a Havana landscape, with all of its flavors, scents and sensory overloads at full tilt.
In addition to Cruz’s lyrical language is his connection to two of its actors: Smits and Rubin-Vega. Smits initially collaborated with Cruz for the 2004 Broadway run of “Anna in The Tropics,” while Rubin-Vega’s Tony-nominated turn in that same 2004 production followed her performance as Sofia in the 1999 Off-Broadway premiere of “Two Sisters and a Piano” at The Public.
Rubin-Vega’s finest moment comes as her character tackles loneliness and sexual longing with Victor Manuel (Gary Perez). While each chatter nervously about the real and imagined music in their heart, both bubble over at the simple glee of shoes offered as payment and the possibility of stolen moments between them.
The Smits we see in “Two Sisters,” a mountainous man with a wide face and lovely eyes, reveals colors and tones we’ve rarely witnessed in the actor: shy, sly loverman, ardent protector, betrayed Romeo with just a smidgen of wool pulled over his eyes. When the dynamic between Portuondo and Maria Celia is compared (a little heavy-handedly) to a pounding vessel on an open roaring sea, Smits’ Portuondo responds, “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” and each repetitive ring is laced with its own set of emotions.
Smits’ is buoyed to such shadow and fog by his mesmerizing interplay with Lozano’s Maria Celia. The camera loves Lozano and she loves the laptop camera right back, angling her face, arching her neck and tilting her head in ways exceptional in the virtual realm. If there is a lockdown streaming Tony to be had for facing a lens and making the most of it, its winner is Lozano, with Smits coming a close second. When she recites her character’s dreams of throwing off her shackles and holds up her arms, it’s as if she’s lifting the audience and herself in mid-air. Her joy and sense of freedom are palpable. So too is her own gamesmanship, for she plays Portuondo as often and as avariciously as he does her.
When Smits’ character reads her husband’s confiscated letters, his Portuondo is hurt, even deflated as Maria Celia rejoices in her betrothed’s loving texts — even if they are coded language that Portuondo sees through. When the captive asks her captor to read another man’s love letter’s slower, the game between them is a sharp and sexy chess match. “The enemy is not such a bad thing,” says Maria Celia.
New Normal Rep, the producers and creators of “Two Sisters and Piano,” was founded at the height of the pandemic to present digital theater with performances recorded in actors’ homes using green screen technology and staging and editing techniques that split the difference between stage action and TV pacing. While a few moments and set pieces linger longer than they have to, “Two Sisters and a Piano” looks as good as it sounds, with its faces and poetry intact.
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