`Anna in the Tropics' has a way with words

Theater Reviews

November 18, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

NEW YORK - Watching Anna in the Tropics is like being handed an exquisitely wrapped package from someone to whom you've just been introduced.

As you pull away the brightly colored ribbon and open the box, the shimmering, delicate thing inside reveals itself with the unfolding of each successive layer of tissue paper.

You feel humble and a bit unworthy. It makes you want to find a way to repay in kind, to present the actors, director Emily Mann and playwright Nilo Cruz with an offering of gratitude made with your own hands.

Traditionally, that offering is called "applause." But for a few exceptional works, it seems inadequate.

The Pulitzer committee apparently agreed, and awarded Anna in the Tropics with the 2003 prize for drama - without even catching the production's world premiere last fall in Coral Gables, Fla. The award was based on the committee's reading of Cruz's lyrical, atmosphere-drenched script.

That alone would be sufficient to make Anna a front-runner when the Tony Awards are handed out next June. The production that opened on Broadway Sunday starring Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega deserves it.

The play is set in a cigar factory in Tampa, 1929. Smits is cast as Juan Julian, the new "lector" who reads aloud to the factory workers as they hand-roll the tobacco leaves. The lector tradition originated in Cuba, and as one character puts it: "Some of us cigar workers might not be able to read or write, but we can recite lines from Don Quixote or Jane Eyre."

The women are ecstatic at Juan Julian's arrival. But not everyone welcomes him, including Chester, who is bitter because his wife ran off with one of the plant's previous lectors. Besides, Chester is eager to modernize the factory, and the workers won't be able to hear the stories over the noise of the machines he wants to buy.

As Juan Julian begins to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the novel's two great themes - an adulterous love affair and the relationship between boss and employees - become mixed up in the goings-on at the factory.

Anna in the Tropics may be the most passionate discourse about a specific novel ever staged. It also may be one of the most persuasive arguments for the transforming power of art, with the lector fulfilling the function of the artist in Cruz's script.

Not only does the play contain verbatim chunks of Tolstoy's text, Cruz's characters fiercely debate the meaning of individual scenes. That might sound about as lively as, well, watching someone roll a cigar. But the choices made by Tolstoy's Russian aristocrats begin to assume a life and death importance for their Cuban-American counterparts.

Thus, the factory owner, Santiago (the leonine Victor Argo), finds a role model for how to treat his own workers in Levin's relationship with the peasants working on his country estate. And Conchita (Rubin-Vega, anguished and smoldering) knows without having to be told the fatal dynamics that Tolstoy's heroine sets in motion when she consummates her passion for Vronsky.

Only the character of Juan Julian intentionally remains a cipher. As an almost archetypal artist figure, Juan Julian seems to come from no particular background, and Smits portrays him as part shaman. But the other characters emerge in vivid relief: Rubin-Vega as a wife hoping that an affair will point the route to her husband's heart; Vanessa Aspillaga as Marela, the dreamy, younger daughter who yearns for an epic romance; John Ortiz as the husband who learns that he has only two choices in life: to destroy the artist, or to become him.

Sure, one can quibble. The second act should be trimmed, and at times Cruz can be overly didactic. And although his poetry usually is wondrous, occasionally he strains, as when one lover tells another: "I detect sad trees in your eyes."

Not to mention gloomy shrubs.

And yet - in the flowing dresses designed by Anita Yavich, the brown-skinned actresses resemble the white flowers of the tobacco plant shining against dark leaves. Peter Kaczorowski drenches the stage with the kind of light that, as Juan Julian tells the others, it is difficult to hide behind.

And Cruz's language aptly has been compared to a tropical breeze. His prose wafts up your sleeve or down a collar. His words ruffle your hair and tickle your neck until they seem no more external to your body than your own breath.

Theater

What: Anna in the Tropics

Where: Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $46.25-$81.25

Call: 212-239-6200

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