Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Bathing in Moonlight
McCarter Theatre Center
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Hannia Guillen and Raúl Méndez
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Thirteen years ago, playwright Nilo Cruz and director Emily Mann scored a surprise hit with Anna in the Tropics. That play, which chronicled the culture of cigar making that Cubans brought to Florida in the early years of the 20th century, was the dark-horse winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and the production transferred from the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton (where Mann is artistic director) to Broadway, garnering praise and Tony nominations. With Anna, Cruz announced himself as a lyrical and romantic playwright with his finger on the pulse of Cuban culture, past and present.

Unfortunately, lightning has not struck twice for Cruz and Mann, who are back at McCarter with the world premiere of Bathing in Moonlight. On its surface, this play purports to be a meditation on balancing the twin desires of worldly love and religious devotion. In execution, it achieves little more than the average Harlequin paperback romance.

The play is set in present-day Miami, where the handsome and compassionate Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez) ministers to a largely Cuban-American flock. The play opens in the form of a sermon delivered to the audience, in which he describes a World War II-era priest who redraws the ramparts of his church to include the grave of a non-Catholic soldier. "God wants us to remove barriers and walls," he tells his faithful. "God wants us to extend the parameters and remove all fences in life."

The parameters of Father Monroe's life have extended to include Marcela (Hannia Guillen), a devout single mother who has fallen on hard times. We learn that Father Monroe has lent her money to pay the mortgage on her home—and, in the process, he's fallen in love with her. The upright Marcela tries to remind the priest of his vows, but soon submits to her own desires. They begin a chaste affair, with a predictable outcome.

The problem with Bathing in Moonlight is that it has no stakes. Father Monroe wants a carnal relationship with Marcela, but he also wants to remain a priest. The latter scenario is flatly denied by his mentor, Bishop Andrew (Michael Rudko, who makes the most of a thankless role). Although Father Monroe mentions in passing that the only way to change the church is from within, Cruz never actually presents a mode of action for such an evolution. But then again, this is not a play about ideas. It's a soap opera.

It's also hard to believe—as the play suggests—that a consensual, heterosexual relationship between a priest and an adult woman would lead to widespread public condemnation and dangerous protesting. Yet Cruz uses this dramatic device as a means to speed the withering second half of his play to its expected denouement.

It's possible that the evening could have been salvaged some with better performances, but Mann's sluggish production is weighed down by weak acting. Méndez is engaging in his opening monologue but static in longer scenes, especially when playing opposite more skilled members of the cast, like Rudko and the venerable Priscilla Lopez, who plays Marcela's senile mother, Martina. Likewise, Guillen's performance misses the mark. Marcela is a woman in dire straits, which she tries to traverse with some dignity and poise. Guillen's interpretation of her is overly histrionic.

A subplot in which Martina imagines her late husband (Frankie J. Alvarez, who also plays her son) is at least entertaining, but serves no purpose; it could be completely excised without anything being lost. The most striking elements of the production are the evocative set and lush lighting, both by Edward Pierce. However, these physical elements do little more than remind the audience that they are watching a high-concept production of a low-concept play. Cruz and Mann could have saved us all an hour and a half by convincing Father Monroe to convert to Protestantism.

Bathing in Moonlight continues through October 9, 2016, at McCarter Theatre Center's Roger Berlind Theatre (91 University Place, in Princeton). Tickets ($25-88) can be purchased online at www.mccarter.org or by calling 609-258-2787. Princeton University students can receive free tickets (subject to availability) by presenting their university ID at the box office; students enrolled at other universities can purchase $15 in advance.


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