Anna in the Tropics a shining
premiere on Broadway
By Bill Hirschman
NEW YORK · A collision of self-knowledge and
dreams leads to tragedy and reconciliation in Nilo
Cruz's Anna in the Tropics, a revelatory house of
mirrors that opened at Broadway's Royale Theatre on
Sunday. Theatergoers learned about themselves by watching
Cuban-American émigrés learn about themselves
by listening to a reading of Anna Karenina.
The 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner, which was incubated
and launched at Coral Gables' New Theatre a year ago,
is cause for celebration for many reasons. One is
that it offers a rare instance when the authentic
Hispanic experience spills across a Broadway stage
with all the flavor and color that we in Florida take
But Cruz's tale of lives transmuted by the power
of art needs no cultural excuse to justify the standing
ovation that greeted the production's Broadway debut.
The play, punctuated with hilarity, sweat and tears,
proved itself a strong and clear artistic vision,
with no asterisks.
Anna is set in a 1929 Ybor City factory where cigars
are still rolled by hand, even as mechanization threatens
to end a vibrant way of life. Maintaining a tradition
from the old country, owners Santiago and Ofelia import
a lector to read literature aloud to the workers.
Juan Julian, the charismatic and sensual reader,
chooses the tragedy of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy's tale
of passion and adultery inflames the emotions and
intellect of the listeners, whose own lives parallel
those in the story: the impulsive young dreamer Marela,
her mature sister Conchita, Conchita's unfaithful
husband Palomo and Santiago's half-brother, Cheche,
whose life has curdled after his wife left him.
Juan and his tale are catalysts that create one romantic
relationship, revive another and destroy a third.
Sex and passion and love -- sometimes separate, sometimes
melded in changing combinations -- swirl around the
characters like the omnipresent cigar smoke wafting
around the stage.
Like his lector and Tolstoy, Cruz is a storyteller
who spins golden webs of plot, character and language
into a hypnotic song. Although some of his dialogue
is prosaic, his characters often speak unaffectedly
in bursts of lyrical imagery, revealing poetic souls
that they do not realize they possess.
As the reader, Jimmy Smits makes a solid Broadway
debut in a role that makes the most of his charm.
But while the lector's role is the linchpin, the show
is an ensemble piece with a sextet of first-quality
performances -- the first all-Latin cast in a Latin
play to appear on the Great Anglo Way.
And in fact, Smits' is not the standout performance.
That likely belongs to Daphne Rubin-Vega, Rent's original
Mimi, as Conchita, driven to the lector for romance
by Palomo's inattention. Her strangled voice and pain-filled
eyes rend the heart as she begs her husband to find
some alternative mode of loving her.
Director Emily Mann, head of the McCarter Theatre
in Princeton, N.J., which debuted this version this
fall, deftly allows the play to breathe. She helps
invests these simple people with dignity.
Although Cruz gives Mann all the raw materials, the
director doesn't quite maintain the tension and sense
of doom that should imbue the final third of the evening.
Yet her production does provide a finale that is both
shocking and cathartic.