Letters from Cuba

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

From Cuba
Maria Irene Fornes
Irene Fornes’ Letters from Cuba is an unprepossessing jewel. Directed
by the author, this quietly beautiful, last production of the Signature Theater’s
all-Fornes season comes as something of a relief, since the rest of the season
has been, to varying degrees, a letdown. Mud, one of this neglected playwright’s
most accessible plays, which should’ve been a triumphal revival, was disastrously
directed. Enter the Night, the New York premiere of a 1993 work whose
fascinating strangeness became slowly apparent only after a dreadfully torpid
opening scene, reinforced Mud’s mistaken impression of an author
morbidly obsessed with sorrow and gloom. Letters from Cuba, a 65-minute
world premiere, is the sweetly simple, lingeringly odd Fornes experience Signature
audiences should’ve been given at the outset.

Many talented dramatists
write commandingly about important matters they are certain they know and understand:
emotions, experiences, lessons, styles. Some, however, such as Chekhov, Beckett
and Fornes, write instead about infacility and absence, the spaces between things,
ghostly presences, inscapes and those unnamable impulses that give life lasting
density and strangeness, often making it seem to have value even in the face
of crushing frustration and disappointment.

Letters from Cuba
takes place in both New York and Cuba, jumping frequently back and forth in
time, with Cuba represented simply as the roof above and behind a New York apartment.
This apartment is shared by three young artists–Joseph, a poet (Peter Starrett),
Marc, a visual artist (Matthew Floyd Miller) and Fran, a dancer (Tai Jimenez).
The extremely sparse yet airy space designed by Donald Eastman adds to the impression
that absolutely anything might happen here.

What does happen (as usual
in Fornes) is seemingly inconsequential yet packed with submerged energies that
would challenge anyone’s powers of description. Marc and Joseph, for instance,
discuss writing poetry and other artistic matters and seem variously attracted
to Fran and each other, but much of the resonance in their interactions lies
not in their deceptively simple words but in the subtle suggestions of the actors’
similarly wiry physiques and wide-featured, boyish expressions. Fran, for her
part, dances more than speaks, and her eloquent movement (ballet and Martha
Grahamish modern) is as crucial to the play’s sense of interpenetrating
worlds as the Cuban music occasionally played over loudspeakers or by one of
the actors.

It may be tempting for some
to reduce this work to a quasi-biographical document about a long emigration
struggle. Fran and her brother Luis (Chris De Oni)–who spends most of the
play up on the roof–read aloud numerous letters conveying the pain of separation,
and he and his son Enrique enter the New York apartment in the end through a
magic wall panel. One ought to keep in mind, though, that the Cuban and American
worlds are never presented as completely separate, and Luis never mentions Fidel
Castro or politics. He and Fran sometimes acknowledge each other as they read
and speak on the different levels, and each visits the other’s space in
not-quite-surrealistic episodes before the end. Furthermore, the marvelously
puckish adult actor Rick Wasserman, in the child-role of Enrique, lends a wry
ambiguity to most of the discussions of life in the two countries.

Fornes has never had much
interest in providing detailed psychological preambles to the isolated moments
that make up her actions. She fashions scenes by zeroing in on a few choice
lines surrounding a point of crisis or discovery–lines most other playwrights
would dismiss as too banal. She’s also a master of what might be called
the extended nonsequitur, exquisitely applied here in two short scenes involving
the New York building’s slow-witted and portly maintenance man Jerry. Superbly
played by Peter van Wagner, Jerry first barges in seeking approval for a letter
he’s written to fight a parking ticket, then later abruptly arrives for
what he calls his "class" with Fran, dances a brief, delicate duet
with her, waves and leaves.

Letters from Cuba
reminds me in certain ways of Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire
(originally Der Himmel über Berlin), which was written by Wenders
and Peter Handke and dealt with the dilemma of two angels who come to Earth
in divided Berlin and soon grow unhappy. With great compassion, the angels observe
the lives of selected ordinary people, but since they’re immortals who
can’t touch, taste, smell or experience the transience of existence, they
feel cut off from everything truly significant in the lives of the humans they
come to love.

Fornes’ play, too,
evokes a specific place, named in the title and rendered somewhat unreal by
the Cold War, and uses the trope of attachment to it as a means of exploring
fundamental connections and separations between people. Interestingly enough,
her play also sets up a provisional "heaven," with several ethereal
characters ascending to and descending from the star-canopied Cuban rooftop
on unseen ladders, only to embrace in an earthly space in the end that has been
magically transformed by a risky reunion. There’s no need to strain this
comparison. The fact that any new American play can be meaningfully compared
with the transitory beauties and rigors in Handke and Wenders is itself reason
to celebrate.

Signature Theater, 555 W.
42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-PLAY, through March 12.

The Tale
of the Allergist’s Wife
Charles Busch
Busch, one of the most gifted author-mimics in the downtown theater, has now
leapt confidently into uptown respectability. A spiritual heir to Charles Ludlam,
Busch has been known since the mid-1980s mainly for cabaret-scale Hollywood
sendups such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Times Square Angel,
The Lady in Question, Psycho Beach Party and Red Scare on Sunset,
in which he typically reserved the star female roles for himself. He is extremely
funny and not nearly as trivial as many of his fans (and sometimes he himself)
seem to think. He would probably have earned serious critical attention long
ago had he turned his satirical eye occasionally to classic plays, as Ludlam
did, rather than to pop movies.

His latest target is theatrical,
as it happens, and, as usual, he has skewered it so delightfully there’s
no way to tell where critique ends and homage begins. The Tale of the Allergist’s
is a variation on the "domestic crisis play"–that commonplace
of American drama in which a mildly outrageous outsider visits a troubled home,
shakes everyone up and is ultimately rejected, leaving the family closer and
better adjusted. Popularized by numerous writers in the tradition of William
Inge, this genre became a crucial model for tv sitcoms and was long a staple
of theaters like Circle Repertory Theater (and, to an extent, Manhattan Theater
Club). Busch’s new-and-improved game thus arrives at the doorstep of its
original manufacturer.

In any case, both this script
and the splendid production of it directed by Lynne Meadow are way too funny
for anyone to come away regretting that Busch wasn’t more subversive this
time. Linda Lavin is perfect as Marjorie, the "epicly depressed,"
Upper West Side housewife, failed novelist, amateur intellectual and mother
of grown children, who recently went haywire in a Disney store after the untimely
death of her therapist. Tony Roberts, with his bland imperturbability so familiar
from Woody Allen’s films, is also ideal as her recently retired allergist
husband Ira, who has hundreds of deadpan lines like, "It’s an honor
and a blessing to give that girl free samples of Humabid."

Also crucial to the production’s
charm are Shirl Bernheim as Marjorie’s chronically negative, aged mother
Frieda, who won’t stop talking about her bowels, and Anil Kumar as her
loyal friend, doorman and reading partner Mohammed. The 1960s sex-bomb Michele
Lee plays Marjorie’s childhood friend Lee, who drops in out of the blue
and temporarily lifts her (and Ira’s) spirits with sudsy sexual adventurousness
and wildly implausible, name-dropping tales about famous cultural figures she’s
supposedly known or slept with. Busch handles the delicate matter of deflating
all of these pretensions with great finesse. Whether he can do more than that
in the future with the larger audience he is certain to win with this deeply
conventional play remains to be seen.

Manhattan Theater Club,
131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through April 16.

The Eternal
By Kurt
Weill and Franz Werfel

Academy of Music (closed)
The Chemnitz
Opera’s visit to BAM with its unbelievably corny and unimaginative, three-and-a-half-hour
production of Kurt Weill’s "lost" work Der Weg der Verheissung
(The Eternal Road)–which combines stories from Jewish biblical history
with a present-tense crisis similar to the rise of the Nazis–reminded me
of sitting miserably through synagogue services that made no effort to include
me as a child. The massive yet torpid production (with well over 200 performers)
hailed from the former East Germany, where anti-Semitism is again on the rise,
and thus seemed to beg for appreciation merely because it was mounted. Apart
from performing the music–which is better than Franz Werfel’s childish
text but hardly Weill’s strongest–I could discern no artistic reason
whatever for reviving this piece. Political correctness, it seems, returns to
haunt America from the unlikeliest of places.