Hispanic playwright Luis Santeiro’s attempt to playfully spoof Miami’s Cuban exile community arrived at the Coconut Grove Playhouse just as the angst over Elian Gonzalez reached its peak. Although “Praying With the Enemy” is set in Havana during the 1998 papal visit, it deals with all the underlying issues of Miami exile politics brought to the fore over Elian. In that superheated atmosphere (the show opened on the eve of massive demonstrations in Little Havana, not far from the playhouse), the well-aimed but affectionate satire was mostly lost upon its audience. It was doubly unfortunate that the play containing the humor is a messy series of comic sketches without discernible plot.
Santeiro, in addition to his Emmy Award-winning “Que Pasa, U.S.A.?”, is author of the musical “Barrio Babies,” which premiered at the Denver Center Theater last fall and is now under consideration for a New York berth. He’s an old hand at Latino comedy, including three previous scripts the Grove has used for its courtship of the Hispanic audience: “Mixed Blessings,” “The Rooster and the Egg” and “The Lady from Havana.”
“Praying With the Enemy” ultimately is sympathetic to Miami exiles’ point of view, without absolving its political excesses. Santeiro’s naturally appealing comedy routines poke fun at the myths and stereotypes created by both the exile and Anglo communities about each other. The situations range from near-farce to poignant drama.
The jokes play out far more pointedly than is customary in a town where exile/Anglo relations are typically bereft of humor. That may represent both an artistic if not social breakthrough for the Grove, where titters of recognition flare up consistently from an audience obviously staring into a Swiftian mirror.
The narrative begins with Kim Ostrenko as Cynthia, a Martha Stewart-type TV hostess assigned to report about Cuban lifestyle during the pope’s visit. But as soon as she and a well-off Miami exile couple touch down in Havana, they become embroiled in politics and social issues with a local family.
The family’s matriarch is Cuqui, a TV cooking show hostess played with revolutionary fervor by Eileen Galindo. Oscar Isaac is her streetwise son, whose occupation is “tourist consultant” (male prostitute). Gonzalo Madurga is husband Omar, well-educated but earning a meager living as a cab driver because it pays more than a career as a government bureaucrat.
The son becomes the American TV journalist’s gofer, hoping she’ll become his ticket to America. The husband is hired as the exile couple’s tour guide, trying unsuccessfully to steer clear of political debate while they discover a Havana unlike the one they left.
The exile couple finds a classic metropolis in the dusk of its life, evocatively designed by Troy Hourie and lit by Kirk Bookman. The Grove’s production values are uniformly high, with costumes by Ellis Tillman that highlight the differences between the “tourists” and the residents, and sound by Steve Shapiro that adds gritty realism.
The Cuban wife/TV hostess tries to toe the party line on camera, and to evict the capitalist locusts who set up camp in her government-assigned home. The building, it turns out, belonged to the exiled woman’s family and was confiscated by Fidel Castro’s regime. She refuses to leave, and the American reporter sticks around to document the conflict between her and the new occupants.
Emotional issues thicken and proliferate. None attains prominence, and only a handful are partially resolved. Director Michael John Garces contributes to the narrative’s lack of focus by playing to each minor relationship issue, then dropping it to move on to the next. These swirl around journalist Ostrenko, hustler Isaac and cabby Madurga in a confused semi-romantic menage a trois, with TV hostess Galindo struggling to re-conquer her matriarchal kingdom.
De Guzman and Cruz have a much better time of it with near-farcical portrayals of the exile couple. They give zing to the humor. But they’re sketch comics rather than actors, out of place in author Santeiro and director Garces’ uneasy mix of satire and drama.