Three attractive twentysomethings share a Manhattan railroad flat. The two men adore the beautiful young woman, but can’t express their love. She somehow remains oblivious to their affections, perhaps because her emotional life remains with her family in a far-off city. No, this is not the plotline for yet another WB network pilot. It’s the premise for Maria Irene Fornes’ latest play, “Letters from Cuba,” which receives its world-premiere at the Signature Theater, in a season devoted to the works of this avant-garde playwright. Unfortunately, its 60-minute length isn’t the only thing Fornes’ play has in common with a “Felicity” episode; it’s also just as slight in content.
In “Mud” and “The Conduct of Life,” two of Fornes’ better plays, the war of the sexes carries a primal urgency. Here it is simply juvenile: The two men’s interest in Fran (Tai Jimenez) leads Marc (Matthew Floyd Miller) and Joseph (Peter Starrett) to duke it out in a pillow fight. Their dialogue also belongs back in the dorm room. “She used to be closer to us,” one of them reveals. “We haven’t been out together for a long time.” Later, they conclude, “Friendship is more lasting than romantic love. Romantic love burns fast and ebbs fast. Love of a friend is more lasting.” But in the end, what 25-year-old can control his hormones? “I know she cares for me as a friend. But will she ever say, ‘I love you, Joe?'”
In typical TV mode, the object of these boys’ adoration is idealized to abstraction. A truly economical writer, Fornes makes Fran a dancer, leaving most of the characterization in the hands of a choreographer, who has wisely decided to go uncredited. This playwright doesn’t mince words when she has a point to make. “Love is a concrete thing,” Fran says in one of her few attempts at speech. “Some respond to movement, color or language.”
Language inspires her letter-writing brother Luis back in Cuba, where the night-time sky sparkles with stars. Back in Manhattan, Fran and the guys gaze into an airshaft. Upon some previous visit to her homeland, Fran has told Luis’ son, Enrique (Rick Wasserman), not to worry when the electricity fails them in Cuba and they are forced to light candles. In Manhattan, she has revealed, fancy restaurants “light candles to make it more elegant.” Still, life under a communist regime has its bumps. In another stroke of economy, Fornes introduces a character, Gerardo (Peter Van Wagner), simply to let us know that when one applies for a travel visa in Cuba one loses his job.
No wonder Luis has decided to stay put. Fortunately for him, he is provided the occasional dream sequence wherein Fran’s family gets to visit her already-cramped New York apartment.
Under Fornes’ own muddled direction, the cast behaves as though they’ve been given real characters to play. Enrique, however, remains a mystery. Is he retarded or is Wasserman simply way too old to be playing a juvenile?
The production’s one saving grace is Donald Eastman’s elongated, two-level set that engages the eye for most of the evening’s 60 minutes. The apartment’s railroad design is real-life size, and often the three characters in Manhattan seem farther apart from one another than Fran does from her brother and nephew, who occupy the set’s upper star-lit level. Love may be concrete, but it travels well.