- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

Amazing what seems risque these days. With expanses of bare flesh — everywhere from prime-time to the playground — the human body has become a bit of a snore.

On the other hand, a cigar…now that’s sexy. The warm, tobacco-colored cylinder lolling in the mouth, the blue smoke-rings rising languidly to the skies, the scent redolent of everything from island spices to the earth just before it rains — the cigar beats the centerfold hands-down in what is forbidden, taboo.

The cigar, in fact, is much more than a smoke in Nilo Cruz’s voluptuous, Pulitzer Prize-winning play (never thought you’d see “voluptuous” and “Pulitzer” in one sentence, did you?), “Anna in the Tropics,” about the startling effect words have on a group of Cuban-American cigar factory workers in Florida in the 1920s.

Mr. Cruz’s play is an orgy of language. Not only are there salient passages from the gulag bodice-ripper “Anna Karenina,” but his descriptions are enough to propel you into a cold shower. This is a play where metaphors accrete like the finest silk lingerie — layer upon layer of words that well in the mind like kisses.

How can you not love a writer who comes up with lines like “I have the heart of a seal and when I get excited it wants to swim out of my chest”?

Sometimes the prose gets purplish, but for the most part, you just lie back and think of Cuba.

The play’s catalyst is Juan Julian (the princely Jason Manuel Olazabal), the plant’s new “lector,” someone who, in the Cuban tradition, read aloud to the workers as they bunched tobacco and rolled cigars. In the play, Juan Julian is a courtly man who chooses “Anna Karenina” as his first effort, unaware of how this book will ignite passions both grand and violent in the men and women.

In the women, naturally, Juan Julian arouses passion, particularly in the disenchanted housewife Conchita (Yetta Gottesman), whose husband Palomo (Felix Solis), has taken a lover. She finds, in the words of Tolstoy, “a new way of loving” in the arms of Juan, which also fans the flames of her husband’s desire for her. Once an unhappy frau in an apron, Conchita’s reawakened sexuality — and new Clara Bow hair — turn her into a modern woman, one who controls both her spouse and her lover with sensual ease and dominance. Her assignations with Juan are scorching with the lust of the new; while her scenes with Palomo are more complex sexually. These are people who know each other too well when trying to recapture the mystery and strangeness of lovemaking.

Juan’s presence also beguiles the young, impressionable Marela (Michele Vazquez), who drifts in a world of movie star photos and literary fantasies as gauzy as the cigar smoke that floats around her at the factory. Unfortunately, this innocent is preyed upon by Cheche (Chaz Mena), the owner Santiago’s (Mateo Gomez) half-brother, a corroded soul trying to push the plant into blunt modernization.

Juan Julian also represents the tug between a slower, older, more savored way of life and America in the 1920s; a world of fast cars, movies, a quick smoke, and the perpetual clang of machinery. As a lector, Juan cultivates the art of listening — of letting images and words bloom in your head like small flowers. His way of life has given way to what we see today: a nation of talkers and takers who prefer to “zone out” rather than use the imagination.

An enchanted quality hangs over “Anna in the Tropics,” as if Mr. Cruz’s language has cast a spell over the action of the play. Everyone moves as if caught in a dance, or between the pages of a book where only one person knows the ending.

The actors, under the clear direction of Jo Bonney, capture this familiar, yet other-worldly realm of “Anna in the Tropics.” Everything they do, every word they speak, is touched with an unhurried sensuality that never veers into the cheap or overblown. The tactile is a world in which they move freely, whether they’re lifting a glass of rum, rolling a cigar, or wrapped in an embrace.

And the overall sense of friskiness is not reserved for the young. Marian Licha proves to be an older woman of both dignity and abandon as Ofelia, the owner’s wife, while Mr. Gomez’s Santiago is a tippler and a gambler with an ingratiating vigor.

“Anna in the Tropics” is a play of stirring words and emotional timbre. Its effect is like having someone read aloud to you, or savoring a good cigar. The potency of these acts is revealed slowly, carefully, and remain in the mind long after.

***.

WHAT: “Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz

WHERE: Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 21.

TICKETS: $45 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING:

FOUR STARS

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