Dreams, denial and delusions in 1960 Havana swim in the tragic mambo that suffuses Nilo Cruz’s newest drama, “The Color of Desire,” premiering in his adopted hometown of Miami. In positing an American businessman who persuades a Cuban actress to reincarnate his own lost love, Cruz dazzles the mind and quickens the emotions. But the actual execution onstage at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, Fla., pulses unevenly. It’s a promising work that needs a bit more retooling and a crisper production.
Cruz is known for works like “Anna in the Tropics,” flush with poetic dialogue. The imagery here is intentionally not quite as lyrical, but it’s heady with resonances, as when the actress, Belen (Hannia Guillen), says, “It’s a dark world … but also magnificent, because I can dance and forget the smell of gunpowder that still lingers in the air from the death squads.”
The plot pivots around the American, Preston (Jim Ballard), whose family has owned companies in Havana for decades. Despite the local upheaval, Preston postpones abandoning his privileged paradise of mojitos and mink stoles. He courts Belen, an attractive fledgling actress who tells herself she isn’t troubled by the injustices that the revolution has produced.
But Preston doesn’t want a conventional affair. Like Jimmy Stewart’s detective in “Vertigo,” he wants to mold Belen into a stand-in for a departed temptress, who herself had Preston impersonate a lover executed by Castro. True ardor and feigned passion spin inside their play-acted fantasies — all while growing repression threatens dreamers as deeply in denial as the passengers on “The Ship of Fools.”
The script, commissioned by the Arena Stage in Washington, has evolved in workshops and readings, but there’s still an unfocused feel as Cruz gets caught up in side stories about Yankee snowbirds and Belen’s comic/tragic aunts. We ache for Cruz to excavate more of Preston and Belen’s elusive relationship.
The play wanders until Preston makes his pitch to Belen. Even then, we’re not enthralled until the two make their first foray into fantasy, at which point Cruz’s genius meshes with David Arisco’s direction and the leads’ acting: The dialogue ricochets among so many levels of meaning that we do not know if we are viewing the real world, a fantasy playing in Preston’s mind or a time traveler’s spying on the actual events in the past. It’s a thrilling hall-of-mirrors scene that reveals Arisco’s talent for staging; his tableaux of the intertwining couple are imaginative and sensual. But he isn’t always able to elicit the performances he needs from this cast. Ballard and Guillen don’t generate much heat until they re-enact Preston’s memories; only then do they begin to fully inhabit their characters.