Take one socialist revolution, mix in a domestic drama, a dash of sex and plenty of local flavor, then simmer for two hours. As promising as the recipe for Eduardo Machado’s “The Cook” seems, the prepared dish in this regional production of his latest Cuban story is ultimately unsatisfying.
It is 1959 and Castro is about to enter triumphantly into Havana to begin his revolution. As the hour approaches, a wealthy family flees its New Year’s Eve party — and the country — but not before the mistress of the manse entrusts their beautiful home to her faithful cook, who swears she will safeguard the house until they return.
Nearly 40 years and many struggles, sacrifices and betrayals later, there’s a knock at the door. The daughter of the wealthy woman who fled with her mink and suitcase filled with dollars has come to see what was taken away from her family.
Though some things have changed dramatically four decades later — the slowly deteriorating home has been turned into a paladar, a restaurant in a private home — others have not. The separation between the classes is as cold, cruel and wide as ever. And the revolution has become as sexist and homophobic as the regime it usurped.
What should be a climactic, complex and emotionally riveting scene turns into a political debate with a crudely drawn villain and a deluded heroine. Though there is much slicing, dicing and chopping in this literal kitchen-sink drama, there’s little action other than the initial fleeing and the ultimate return of the representatives of the rich and callous.
The wealthy homeowner is so obviously shallow, insensitive and uninterested in her servant that the worshipful cook, Gladys, seems like a fool for believing her employer cares about her at all. When the daughter returns, she is as arrogant and bigoted as her mother. Taking on both roles, Monica Perez-Brandes plays a caricature of two generations of privilege.
What keeps “The Cook” from being merely a staged and stacked political debate is the inviting, evolving kitchen setting, beautifully detailed by Adam Stockhausen; the play’s great sense of “Upstairs, Downstairs” Havana style, in the first act; and a commanding and graceful perf in the title role by Zabryna Guevara, who starred in this play at Off Broadway’s Intar Theater last year.
Che Ayende as Gladys’ gay cousin Julio is charming at first but then loses his way and becomes shrill in his later scene when Julio’s hunted down by the secret police because of his homosexuality, a subplot that is thinly rendered in an overwrought middle section.
Felix Solis does well as Gladys’ sweet but philandering husband Carlos, who becomes a midlevel manager in the revolution and a loyalist to the end. Joselin Reyes is impressive as Carlos’ level-headed daughter, even managing to escape unscathed with a line like one: “It’s about you and me. How to deal with the past. So we can live in the present.”
Director Michael John Garces keeps his kitchen hopping, but in the end, he presides over a theatrical meal that leaves you hungry for more.