When Cuba-born playwright Nilo Cruz' elegiac and swooningly poetic drama won the Pulitzer last April, none of the jurors had seen it on the stage but decided to give it the prize just from reading the script. Cruz is the first Latin American to receive the award.
The 42-year-old playwright, who came to the United States with his family when he was 10, says he was fascinated as a youth by Russians he encountered in Cuba when Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union were allies. Two of his other plays, "Two Sisters and a Piano" and "A Park in Our House," reflect the Cuban-Russian relationship before it went sour.
And so does "Anna in the Tropics," at least in its literary aspect. It deals with the Cuban custom of having a lector read popular classics to cigar factory workers to alleviate the monotony of their jobs and educate them at the same time. It shows how a lector's selection of Leo Tolstoy's epic romantic novel, "Anna Karenina" precipitates a dangerous love affair that ends in tragedy.
"Tolstoy's novel allowed me to frame all these little love stories I wanted to introduce," Cruz said in an interview. "Art can make a difference, which is what this play is all about."
The plot also provided Cruz with the opportunity to use another Cuban custom, that of naming cigar brands after literary figures such as "Romeo y Julieta." The playwright has a new brand introduced in the play with the name "Anna" after Tolstoy's heroine in the novel.
The play is not set in Cuba, but in Tampa, Fla., where Cuban émigrés began manufacturing cigars in the early years of the last century. It is 1929 and the factory owned by the family headed by a man named Santiago has just imported an aristocratic but penniless young Cuban, Juan Julian (Smits), to fill the job of lector. His first literary selection is "Anna Karenina."
Santiago and his wife Ofelia have two daughters -- Conchita, married to a womanizing husband Palomo, and Marela, unmarried and looking for the man of her dreams. Family relations become complicated by the infatuation for Marela of her father's half brother, Cheche, whose wife has run off with the factory's former lector, and Conchita's adultery with Juan Julian.
Frustrated in his pursuit of Marela, who also prefers Juan Julian, and filled with resentment of lectors in general, Cheche takes murderous action. The last scene in the play depicts the surviving family members wrapping cigars at work stations stretched across the stage like seating at a funeral, the lector's platform empty. The harsh reality of life has replaced the world of romance that had once enveloped them as the result of Juan Julian's beautiful readings.
Smits, whose distinguished acting career has included leading roles on TV's "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," turns in a polished performance as Juan Julian, noble of nature even when being seduced by a married woman. There is a real chemistry between Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega from the original cast of "Rent," who plays the sultry Conchita. Their scenes together have a sexual glow searing enough to be felt across the footlights.
Vanessa Aspillaga is especially winning as Marela, a plump, awkward girl blossoming into a vivacious beauty. She is a lovely to watch as she responds with exuberant pleasure to being chosen to pose for the picture of Anna on the box of the new brand of cigars. Just as sympathetic is Priscilla Lopez (the original Morales in "A Chorus Line") as Ofelia, a pretty older woman who can still flirt when a man like Juan Julian comes along.
Victor Argo as Santiago, David Zayas as Cheche, and John Ortiz as Palomo depict different aspects of the Latin machismo with an appealing naturalness. Zayas is particularly strong as the disgruntled uncle who wants to mechanize the family cigar company as its competitors are doing but is rebuffed because the sound of machinery would drown out the lector.
The play has been directed by Emily Mann to underscore the gentle simplicity and innocent motivation of most of the characters involved. Robert Brill's crude factory workroom setting serves its purpose nicely, and Anita Yavich's mostly white costumes, especially the dapper Juan Julian's vested linen suits and Ofelia's pretty dresses and hats, add much to the tropic, hothouse atmosphere.
"Anna in the Tropics" was commissioned by the New Theater in Miami, Fla. The Broadway production originated at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N. J.