Cuba’s an island, Manhattan’s an island, and art, they tell us, builds a bridge of understanding between disparate peoples. But that’s where the complications start: Art is disparate in itself, different in every artist’s hands. Nilo Cruz and Maria Irene Fornes, Cuban-born New Yorkers imagining the same Cuba from the same Manhattan, have come up with almost antithetical plays, both ironically divided even within themselves: Cruz’s, old-fashioned in form, looks forward with a steely-cold glare to the terrifying future; Fornes’s, modernistically splintered, is suffused with regretful longing for the past that vanishes even as we live it.
Not that they haven’t things in common: Both use music to fill the spaces where words fail. Fornes leans toward nostalgic Cuban pop, alternating with ’40s jazz, while Cruz favors Ernesto Lecuona’s refined transmutations for piano of the island’s folk idioms. In both evenings, dance is used, more to convey emotional closeness than eroticism. Both focus on artists: Cruz’s title characters are a writer and a pianist; Fornes’s central figure—her play’s only woman—is a dancer. In both, the roof of the house is a main character’s retreat, a place to commune with nature and distant loved ones. Naturally, we hear spoken from both rooftops the letters that are Cuba’s link to the outside world, and both sets of letters contain the coded phrases that stand in for direct expression under a totalitarian regime: Cruz’s writer sister, Maria Celia, begs her husband in Europe to send her books about butterflies; Luis, the brother of Fornes’s dancer, Francisca, tells her how he longs to see the paintings at the Met. Visas and escapes, not butterflies and paintings, are the subjects of these sentences.
The letters Maria Celia’s husband writes her, along with the 88-key instrument her sister Sofia practices, are the central objects of Two Sisters and a Piano. Under house arrest for having signed a petition in support of free speech, the sisters endure, in their decaying pre-revolutionary house, the miserable isolation of the politically shunned. The implied analogy to Chekhov’s three sisters is more like a mordant joke: The Prozorov girls were small-town gentility, with neither politics nor art a serious presence in their lives. Sofia and Maria Celia, in contrast, are committed, working artists—the latter’s stories are so well known that even the piano tuner’s read her—and would be committed to La Revolución, too, if they could believe in it. But it’s 1991, and they’re at the bitter end of the century-long line of artists who’ve had their illusions trashed by Communism.
The regime, which won’t publish Maria Celia’s stories, also won’t deliver her husband’s letters. But maybe an individual will: Lieutenant Portuondo, the new officer in charge of their case, has a proposal: He can read them to her—and maybe in return she’ll read him part of the new story she’s working on. The Lieutenant clearly has motives beyond this literary trade-off, but even he isn’t sure if they’re political or sexual. The only sure thing is that no good can come of it. As Genet said, “Distrust judges who lean over amorously toward defendants.” At the end, the sisters lose everything, and worse may be to come, but there’s still music from next-door. Is it a signal of solidarity, a sign of their art’s effect, or just a coincidence? Coded messages aren’t so easy to read.
Nor are the behavioral signals sent out by Fornes’s characters. Francisca, now called Fran, is a dancer in New York, sharing a loft with two young men, both infatuated with her. Fran’s brother Luis’s letters from Cuba and her care packages to him get through easily enough; he’s presumably not a dissident writer. Where Cruz’s trapped siblings listen to the days drip past one by one, Fornes stretches time, scanning the long life of this satellite government that won’t disappear long after the Soviet empire has crumbled. Luis writes Fran to announce the birth of a son, Enrique; a few scenes later, there he is, almost grown; not long after, he’s haunting his Tiá Francisca’s loft in dreams, and sensing America in the “little taste of tin” of the canned goods she sends them. At the end, Luis and his son, unlike Cruz’s sisters, escape to New York. Or maybe they don’t: Fornes’s staging has them arriving in a haze of golden light, like the aliens in Close Encounters, through a door that hasn’t previously existed. (The script’s stage direction says they “enter New York through magic panel stage right.”) Fornes puts her emotional focus on the difficulty of leaving: The last moment before that golden haze shows us Luis, again alone on his roof, stifling a sob, while his son calls plaintively from offstage, “I can’t go without you.”
Both Cruz and Fornes find ways to evoke the many facets of the Cuban paradox: On one hand, the lush fruit and tropical foliage, the scented air, the contemplative ease and graciousness of daily life even after decades of oppression and embargo. On the other, the fear, the aching shortages, the futile drudgery, the bureaucratic brutality and apathy that seem to have been imported from Russia along with the erratic auto parts and the volumes of Marx. The paradox predates Castro: Misery and brutality were endemic under Batista’s regime, too. The island’s mores have always been a mix, disconcerting to foreigners, of open assertiveness and tightly buttoned formality. You hear it, in Fornes’s script, in the strange veering of Luis’s letters from brotherly warmth to the stiff politeness that hides feelings.
You see it, with Cruz, coming out differ-ently in each of the superb quartet of actors Loretta Greco has assembled. Gary Perez, as the piano tuner in whom Sofia thinks she’s found a soul mate, turns his mixed reactions into hilarious bodily slapstick, seeming to move in three or four directions at once. Adriana Sevan, the controlled and controlling Maria Celia, holds herself high, with elegant restraint, till emotion sweeps over her like wind bending a sapling. Daphne Rubin-Vega’s harrowing Sofia skitters and scuttles like a frenzied crab when she isn’t winching herself up proudly to her sister’s height. And those who’ve admired Paul Calderon’s earlier work may not recognize this wrapped-up, pencil-straight stick of a military man, hurricane-level feelings carefully hidden under his hard-baked, gray surface.
Eschewing such emotional lushness, Fornes’s staging is light and dry, her actors touching their roles in gently. Apart from Rick Wasserman’s engaging Enrique and Peter Starrett as the more down-to-earth of Fran’s loftmates, the men don’t register strongly. But Donald Eastman’s cunning set, with its hidden multitude of levels and doors, is evocatively lit by Matthew Frey. At its center, Tai Jimenez’s Fran has few lines, but her angular voluptuousness—can a Giacometti be Rubensian?—speaks volumes. Cruz’s play, small-scale and solid, holds the deeper pain and love of Cuba. Tossing only snatches of such feelings into the light, Fornes toys with the contrasting ways of life, and the divisions within them, easily and philosophically. Taken together, they define the whole character of this unlivable island nobody really wants to leave.
Or is that Manhattan, beloved image of escape for people from Brooklyn and points west? In 1954 an old screenwriter and a young songwriter teamed up to musicalize a play about a 1920s Brooklyn boy who dreams of glamour, glory, and Sutton Place, while his friends just want to get laid, married, and settled down in cozy mediocrity. The hero’s both unpleasant and foolish; the plot takes several sour turns; the numbers are extended ensembles, full of fast, lively musically ingenious chatter. Critics and public would probably have mashed it flat in 1955, but producer Lemuel Ayers, who had designed Oklahoma! and nurtured Kiss Me, Kate!, wasn’t daunted by risk; only a fatal heart attack stopped him, turning Saturday Night from a ’50s harbinger to a ’90s-and-aughts curio.
What’s one to say? The kid had talent: Two or three of the show’s ballads will last; its wittier rhymes (the rich “wear robes and peignoirs/and purchase Renoirs”) will continue to tickle. But how many audiences will care about the self-deceiving, self-destructive schmuck at the center of this not very moving story? Maybe the problem’s directorial: Kathleen Marshall’s a resource-ful stager and inventive choreographer, well abetted here by designers Derek McLane and Catherine Zuber (the proper adjective for eye-catching costumes should be “Zuberant”). But emotional focus is neither her strong point nor that of her lead, David Campbell, though heartwarming Lauren Ward does her best to coax feeling from him. Andrea Burns, Kirk McDonald, and Clarke Thorell add some bright spots; Christopher Fitzgerald, as a brash younger brother, stops and nearly steals the show. The album—to be made, I hope, when everyone’s had some vocal rest—should be the best part of the event. Even the dream’s gone: Today’s Manhattanites fantasize about brownstones in Flatbush.