Win a Pulitzer Prize, go directly to Broadway. That’s the natural trip taken by “Anna in the Tropics,” Nilo Cruz’s play about workers in a Florida cigar factory falling under the spell of Tolstoy’s doorstop novel about a doomed romance. But, unlike those happy families in “Anna Karenina’s” celebrated opening line, all Pulitzer Prize-winning plays are not alike. On the evidence of this production, it seems Cruz’s subtly spiced period drama is not ideally suited to Broadway. The play’s emotional dynamics would be better served by an embracing, intimate space — its delicate fabric feels stretched to a wispy thinness on the stage of the Royale Theater. And yet the venue alone is not to blame for the play’s mild impact, more sleepy than steamy. The creamy texture of Cruz’s writing tends to curdle in Emily Mann’s coarse-grained production.
The play’s milieu and subject matter are enticing and exotic. At a factory run by a family of Cuban immigrants, employees are entertained by a “lector” who reads aloud from novels as they work. In this case, the novel chosen by the dreamy, handsome new lector, played by the silken Jimmy Smits, is Tolstoy’s classic. Immersion in the novel’s sweeping romance provides a happy escape from the mundane chores at hand, the rolling of cigars and sorting of tobacco leaves. And as those in the factory are caught up in its story — willingly or not — the book begins working variously subtle and profound changes in their emotional lives.
The factory’s owner, Santiago, has lost his way in life through addictions to gambling and alcohol. His wife Ofelia has withdrawn into a pose of mild contempt. But their antagonism begins to thaw as Santiago rediscovers through the character of Levin the eager, ambitious young man he once was. Their eldest daughter, Conchita, is even more powerfully affected by the novel, seeing all too clearly in it the pattern of her own withering marriage. She tries to prod her straying husband Palomo into acknowledging the uncomfortable similarities. When he rebuffs her, she defiantly embarks on her own affair with the new lector. Conchita’s younger sister, Marela, is also seduced by the beautiful sound of Juan Julian’s voice and watches in painful rapture his dalliance with Conchita.
The lector’s influence extends beyond the personal to the political. Cheche, Santiago’s brother, is pushing for reforms at the factory, which is slowly falling behind as modernizing reforms take hold in the industry. (The year is 1929.) He wants to bring in machines to facilitate the work. The lector, whose voice could never be heard above the clanging of metal, becomes the eloquent spokesman for and symbol of tradition, the rhythms and rituals of the past: “The truth is that machines, cars, are keeping us from taking walks and sitting on park benches, smoking a cigar slowly and calmly,” he tells Cheche. “So you see, Chester, you want modernity, and modernity is actually destroying our very own industry.”
The play’s intricate but clear patterns are drawn with a pleasing fluidity, and Cruz’s dialogue is often entrancingly lovely, save when it strays into labored, archly poetic image-mongering. (When Juan told Conchita, “Sometimes I see sad trees in your eyes after we make love,” I assumed, and certainly hoped, I had misheard. Get the girl some Visine!) But in scene after scene, fine writing is undercut by one-dimensional performances that land on the emotional notes in the play far too bluntly, flattening out the contrasting or conflicting undercurrents that would give the characters — and the play — depth, subtlety and dimension.
The scene in which Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Conchita engages in a sly game of verbal seduction with Juan Julian is just one example. Conchita tells of a ritual in which Cuban girls would ask a favorite young man to bury a lock of their hair as an offering to nature, and Juan plays along, volunteering to take the responsibility. The dialogue is boldly rich and suggestive. “If I were your husband, I would find an old, wise banyan tree and I would bury your hair by its roots, and I’m sure it would accept the offering like rainwater,” Juan says. Played, as it is here, with a swoony intensity, it threatens to topple into parody.
Rubin-Vega’s performance begins promisingly. In the early scenes she suggests as no one else does the simmering, conflicted feelings soon to be unleashed by her fascination with the novel. But soon the simmering turns to a steady boil, and Conchita becomes an enraptured adulteress from a telenovela, panting with emotion. Smits’ Juan has an apt, casually elegant presence, but he seems suspiciously aware of his status as a romantic cynosure and poet laureate of the vanishing old world.
Other performances are flat and lacking in multiple dimensions (Priscilla Lopez’s Ofelia and Victor Argo’s Santiago), or more severely miscalculated. David Zayas is far too much the heavy as Cheche. The actor should have been encouraged to play against the character’s surface qualities — his brooding anger and resentment at the lector, his brutishness — to reveal the humanity that Cruz clearly intends the character to have. Cheche’s frustrated affection for Marela should be sad, pathetic maybe, but not repellent.
Then again, Vanessa Aspillaga’s Marela is too strident and shrill to strike the deeply poignant notes she should. (Perhaps taking the safest route to win over an audience in a large house, Mann has allowed the actors to harvest obvious laughs, a decision that coarsens the play’s dreamy texture.) John Ortiz, like Zayas a member of the hot Labyrinth Theater Co., is likewise lacking in subtlety as the cuckolded Palomo; he should be conflicted and confused — after all, he all but condones his wife’s relationship with the lector — but for the most part, Ortiz plays him like a stereotypical jealous Latin lover.
The physical production, sad to say, does not provide the atmosphere that might draw us into the drama in spite of the overly blunt orchestration. On the contrary, Robert Brill’s no-frills, wood-slatted set gives the play a sparse, underpopulated look; you’re aware of the actors straying around the stage to fill space, when a sense of oppressive emotional intimacy is needed to drive the play to its foreordained violent conclusion. A lone ceiling fan, looking like a forlorn last bud on a barren tree, labors fruitlessly to suggest the steamy atmosphere of a Florida summer. (The production came straight from the McCarter Theater’s new 300-seat theater, where its design must have worked better.)
“Anna in the Tropics” is the second promising American play in as many weeks to arrive on Broadway in a production that doesn’t do it full justice. Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour” was likewise undermined by an indelicate execution. But in this case the dimensions — and demands — of a Broadway theater are probably as much to blame as an underrealized production. It may be that the play’s gentle texture — wistful, elegiac, dreamy — would always be dissipated on a Broadway stage, like a subtle perfume borne away by a heavy wind.