It’s wonderful how technology and television have winnowed down ancient stereotypes. Southerners, traditionally, are supposed to be outgoing, leisurely, raffish, careless, emotionally mercurial, and poetic, always somewhat looked down on by Northerners, who are assumed to be tidy, stable, work-oriented, less generous but more dependable, and determinedly prosaic. Well, here are two plays set in the South, one by a Cuban American set in Tampa, and one based on a bestselling novel set in North Carolina. The former is mildly interesting, the latter dreadful; both trot out a panoply of the old clichés, in a mechanical, perfunctory manner that only proves they no longer hold true.
Anna in the Tropics is at any rate a play, with a tantalizing premise behind it and the even more tantalizing possibilities of a bustling past world, rich with meanings for our own, that it barely tries to evoke. Cuban cigar rollers in a small Tampa factory in the 1920s have their workdays made bearable by a lector, a literate person employed to break the tedium by reading aloud. The new lector chooses Anna Karenina as his starter book, and the combination of a handsome, unattached, well-spoken man with a novel full of romantic heartache causes a jangle of crisscrossed temperaments and emotional upheavals among the employees, who include the owner’s wife, two daughters, half-brother, and son-in-law. Having laid out this premise, Cruz does remarkably little with it. Before 15 minutes have passed, you know that somebody’s going to die, who the killer will be, and whose heart will be broken as a result. All that remains to be guessed is the cause of death, and Cruz doesn’t even extend himself to make it something apt, like a train or a cigar cutter.
The realities of factory life are scanted—Emily Mann’s production doesn’t suggest what the place must look like until the epilogue—and there are even fewer hints of the anomalous position Cubans, with their own complex racial mix, must have occupied in segregated Florida. Nor is there any mention of the world beyond Florida, except for a passing reference to Valentino movies. Russia is alluded to, of course, as the setting for Anna’s doomed affair, but you’d never know that there had recently been a revolution there, or that Tolstoy was important to workers not only as a literary genius, but as a quasi-religious socialist and pacifist. Lectors, in fact, were often an irritant to factory management because their reading matter gave the workers political and economic, as well as cultural, inspiration: Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, began his career as a lector in a New York cigar factory. But labor-management problems have no more to do with this factory play than the realities of cigar making, about which you learn next to nothing.
None of this would matter much if Cruz had given his characters the psychological depth to hold your interest by themselves, which he managed to do to some degree in the similarly enclosed situations of Two Sisters and a Piano and A Park in Our House (the latter of which also deals with a young Cuban girl’s romanticized vision of Russia). Here he gives everybody one trait each, and Mann’s actors often seem to have been left to fish about in the script for hints of something more; only Jimmy Smits as the dapper lector, Priscilla Lopez as the factory’s patient matriarch, and Daphne Rubin-Vega as a frustrated wife have retrieved much. Sudden flashes of homosexuality and incest, late in the action, look disturbingly like last-ditch efforts to liven up a barren event. Despite its Pulitzer, Cruz’s play is still merely another interesting effort by a gifted young writer who hasn’t yet found his voice.
Granted, that’s better than a work in which no voice at all is audible. I’ve never read Allan Gurganus’s bestselling novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. If Martin Tahse’s stage version is anything to judge by, even Book of the Month Club mediocrity has declined since the days when Margaret Mitchell was peddling her powdered mint julep mix. Mitchell’s kitschy romantic fantasy of the Civil War, and the even kitschier movie David Selznick made of it, at least had the integrity of their own garbagey sentimentality. The new fashion represented by Gurganus-Tahse is for an incoherent, random garbage that varies the sentimentality with a crass appeal to additional sorts of kitsch tastes: for violence, for the sordid and grotesque, and for dime-store political correctness. All this is glopped together, with minimal regard even for chronological sense, in a recitation—you couldn’t call this thing a play—that Ellen Burstyn delivers, with a briskly efficient, take-it-or-leave-it charm that reveals nothing except her skill at driving points home and her ability to hold focus through the barrage of multimedia effects with which Don Scardino’s production surrounds her. She looks well and could probably still act well if she chose to do an actual play. Why she’s doing this instead I can’t imagine.