In “Beauty of the Father,” words and metaphors flow like the vino tinto being liberally consumed by the characters or the waves that caress the beach in southern Spain that provides the setting for Nilo Cruz’s sleepily sultry tale of unrequited love. But the Cuban-American playwright’s intoxication with poetic language gets in the way of his ability to locate the work’s emotional center, an impediment that also stymies director Michael Greif and his mostly capable cast in Manhattan Theater Club’s seductively designed but uninvolving production.
Just as the spirit of Tolstoy wafted through the Florida cigar factory where Cuban workers toiled in Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” here another literary ghost hovers even more vividly over a quintet of emotional exiles in the form of an elegantly cream-suited Federico Garcia Lorca (Oscar Isaac). That mascot of gay martyrdom makes an apt soulmate and spiritual guide for troubled artist Emiliano (Ritchie Coster), inspiring the work of the melancholic man, drenched in longing and frustration, and even directing his thoughts, words and actions.
The drama deals ponderously with the elusive search for love. “This is where Spain ends and rocks spill over the edge to welcome those who come with pain and affliction,” says Lorca of the small coastal town in Granada where the action takes place.
Naturally, love is inextricably linked with pain and affliction, as it is with death and “the little stream of blood that still flows from our wounds.” This is a work whose lyrical sensibility will be hypnotic to some and soporific to others.
The ostensible heart of the play is the reunion between Emiliano and Marina (Elizabeth Rodriguez), the adult daughter he left behind in America when she was 8, after he walked out on her mother and fled to Spain. Burdened heavily by the recent loss of her mother, Marina has come to her father for answers. In one of his most belabored metaphors, Cruz has Emiliano collecting birds’ nests for a sculpture while confessing to Marina, “I’ve become a nester. I’d like to father you.”
Emiliano lives with Paquita (Priscilla Lopez), an earthy woman who clearly loves the artist but values companionship over anything physical: “For me, sex is like a summer house I closed up for the winter.”
Also living with them is Karim (Pedro Pascal), a young Moroccan immigrant married to Paquita for residency purposes.
When Marina and Karim succumb to their mutual attraction in a drug-fueled night of revelry, she is unaware that her father also is bewitched by the boy, their single night of sex having segued to confusion for Karim, who’s basically straight.
While it’s muddied by lack of lucidity in the embroidered writing and by Rodriguez’s self-conscious over-emoting, the father-daughter relationship is the backbone of the drama, as Marina gradually overcomes her grudges and grows to love and accept Emiliano, even sacrificing a chance for personal happiness.
Like figures in an uncommonly literate telenovela, each of the characters is driven by their unfulfilled need of another in the play’s contorted emotional tangle: Paquita by her selfless love for Emiliano; Emiliano by his desire to be a father-lover to Karim and a regular father to Marina; Marina by the pull to be part of a family; and the petulant, playful Lorca by his wish for reprieve from death through Emiliano.
While all these characters remain emotionally remote, Karim is perhaps the most unsatisfyingly rendered by Cruz. The fatherless boy’s motives are never quite clarified enough to smother the suspicion of opportunism directed at him by the others, who embrace and then exile him. A purveyor of exotic perfumes, Karim is too blandly depicted as a lean-bodied lust object with no inner life to make him persuasive as a sexual enchanter in such a context of heady poetry.
Coster and Lopez come closest to transcending the play’s ephemeral spell and creating memorable characters, while Isaac’s injection of wry humor provides welcome levity.
Backed by bamboo blinds that also form undulating waves above the stage, Mark Wendland’s simple but captivating design and the warm colors of James F. Ingalls’ lighting enhance Cruz’s skill at evoking a dreamy atmosphere of emotional and physical yearning — far more than the prosaically Andalusian guitar-strumming that saturates the action.
But despite flashes of anger that erupt like bursts of flamenco, and a generous strain of magic realism in which the living and the dead cohabit peacefully, the play remains inert, its studied beauty distant and intangible.