Anna In The Tropics by Nilo Cruz. Directed by Emily Mann. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by Anita Yavich. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Victor Argo, Vanessa Aspillaga, John Ortiz, David Zayas, and Priscilla Lopez.
Awards can affect expectations in funny ways. Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics was the somewhat surprise winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, leading many in the New York theatre community to scratch their heads wondering what this play was and why it was worthy of the honor.
Though Florida, Los Angeles, and Chicago have already seen the show, the production that just opened on Broadway at the Royale (imported from New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center) can now answer the first question for New York. The second question, however, would seem to still be somewhat up in the air. While Anna in the Tropics is a more satisfying and substantial play than last year's Pulitzer winner, Topdog/Underdog, and despite its being frequently entertaining, clever, and interesting, the script and the production it's received here casts an aura of being both too slight and too overblown to be completely effective.
At the very least, Cruz's story is sound, highlighting the transformative powers of literature on the human mind and soul and the unstoppable nature of progress in both people and business. The simple, essentially uneducated employees of a cigar factory in Tampa, Florida's Ybor City in 1929 are introduced to an unfamiliar, exciting world when their new lector (who breaks up the day's monotony by reading books and poetry aloud), Juan Julian (Jimmy Smits), reads to them from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
This sets off a chain of events that forces the characters to re-examine their lives and their outlooks on the world. Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega), unhappily married to the unfaithful Palomo (John Ortiz), begins an affair of her own (mirroring Anna Karenina's) with Juan Julian. Marela (Vanessa Aspillaga) truly loses herself in the story to the point of neglecting much of the real world around her. The factory's owners, Santiago (Victor Argo) and Ofelia (Priscilla Lopez), are inspired to develop a new cigar, but they're facing trouble from one of the workers, Cheché (David Zayas), who is slowly buying up portions of the factory by covering Santiago's gambling debts. Cheché is steadfastly determined to end the tradition of the lector and modernize the entire operation.
The battles between reality and fantasy and tradition and progress are played out as to mirror the struggles of the characters in Tolstoy's novel, with spoken passages used to further illuminate the play's events. This choice of Cruz's, while highly familiar and widely used, is not ineffective; Cruz is quite successful in documenting the transformation of the unassuming workers into more worldly, adventurous figures this way. And, as he's infused the script with plenty of light-hearted comedy, he's able to smooth over many of the play's rougher edges.
Even so, one can't help but wish Cruz had come up with a slightly more surprising or original way of dealing with the story and its unique issues. Marela, for example, emerges at one point in full Anna Karenina regalia (the costumes are by Anita Yavich) - yes, there's a nominal plot reason for it, but is such an overt display truly necessary? Cruz's somewhat heavy-handed fidelity to Tolstoy will find theatregoers familiar with Anna Karenina mostly unsurprised at this play's events; theatregoers with basic knowledge of American history who saw Topdog/Underdog will no doubt be able to relate. (Perhaps subtlety is just not currently in fashion in the Pulitzer Prize voting committee?)
It's not exactly sought after in Emily Mann's production, either, though her decent staging and generally fine work with the actors suggests it likely wasn't all her fault. In the correctly sized space - the Berlind Theatre at McCarter, one can't help but assume - Robert Brill's cigar box of a set would probably ideally capture the humid stuffiness of the characters' lives before Juan Julian's arrival. But there's no cramped feeling here; despite fine lighting from Peter Kaczorowski that establishes the stifling heat of the locale, the production always seems empty around the edges, as if a half-dozen key supernumeraries, who might add depth to the story and stage pictures, just didn't show up. (This is the only time, in my experience, the Royale has ever seemed too big for a show.)
At least the talented actors are well suited enough to their roles to grant some real size to the production. Smits is a smoldering and intelligent Juan Julian and Rubin-Vega is quite good, if at times a smidgen too modern, as the emotional caterpillar giving way to a sensual butterfly. Zayas's stolidly progressive nature plays beautifully with and against Aspillaga's theater-filling joy when exposed to Tolstoy, while Lopez and Argo are a hoot as Ofelia and Santiago. Only Ortiz's performance as Palomo seems a bit one-note and flat.
Anna in the Tropics suggests that Cruz is a strong enough voice to merit careful attention in the future, and his Pulitzer win will doubt open doors that will allow him to create the truly unique, original play he is obviously capable of. That play, however, is not Anna in the Tropics - despite its many virtues, it's nothing we haven't seen before.