Eduardo Machado chews over a big chunk of personal history in his new play, “Havana Is Waiting.” The central character is a gay writer who returns to Cuba almost 40 years after having been exiled from the country as a child during the Peter Pan airlifts of 1961. This saga matches the writer’s own, which may explain why the play has an insular, meditative quality that is not particularly theatrical.
Fans of this highly regarded writer’s work will be happy to lend an ear to his florid musings on the divided self and the wounds of exile, but “Havana Is Waiting” is far too meandering and theatrically inert to have significant appeal among Off Broadway theatergoers. The limp dramaturgy and digressive dialogue are the sound of a writer talking to himself.
Bruce MacVittie is Federico, the Machado stand-in. As the play opens he’s flailing dramatically around his New York apartment, full of ambivalence about his planned trip back home for some reconnection with his roots.
Ambivalence, indeed, is the hallmark of his character, a legacy of his lifelong feelings of alienation from — and affection for — both the country of his birth and the America he’s made his home. But Federico is certainly never at a loss for words: He’s prone to express himself in writerly bursts of verbiage that will strike theatergoers as either a) evocative lyricism or b) tiresome twaddle. To wit: “The water is blue. The mud is red. The palm trees still sway. What I dreamt of all my life. Coming back to ‘Never Land.’ The sand will be white. And there’s a volcano inside of me. A volcano called regret. That I cannot let go of…”
On his trip back to Havana, Federico is accompanied by his pal Fred (Ed Vassallo), a straight Italian-American whose feelings for Federico are likewise, yes, ambivalent, and much discussed. The third character in the play is a local taxi driver, Ernesto (Felix Solis), whose English is good enough to allow for many informative exchanges of opinion with Federico about recent and not-so-recent Cuban history.
Federico’s roiling emotions, Fred’s murky sexuality and the politics of the Cuban embargo are the major topics of conversation, and the play is indeed all conversation. Fred and Federico pop Valium and play around with a video camera (a clumsy device) but the play is mostly devoid of action, unless you include Ernesto’s arrival at one point with a pair of Elian Gonzalez posters (another clumsy device).
Under Michael John Garces’ somewhat passive direction, the performances of Vassallo and Solis are lively, truthful and neatly detailed, but MacVittie’s take on the colorful central character is a bit mannered and eventually abrasive. His attempts at flamboyance feel particularly inauthentic. In one of the play’s stranger digressions, Federico and Fred take turns doing Blanche DuBois, and the heterosexual Fred’s is considerably more convincing.
For all the characters’ exhaustive talk about the painful cultural and personal legacies of the political schism between Cuba and America, Machado concludes his play with some pretty banal simplicities. Fred and Federico head back home with a letter for Ernesto’s sister. As the plane climbs, they describe their dreams for the future, positing a world “where a person can be a man, a woman, a boy, a little girl. Whatever feels right inside,” “where a child can decide where he wants to live,” “where more than one ideology can exist,” etc. It sounds pretty, but it’s pretty empty, like far too much of Machado’s writing here.