Cruz Control

Crack open a playwright whose career has just gotten under way and you'll more than likely find a dreamer wrestling with the ghost of Anton Chekhov. American theater festivals are littered with reworkings of The Three Sisters, the Chekhov classic in which characters saddled with longing speak of the day they'll leave their provincial drawing rooms and reinvent themselves in Moscow. Perhaps only a Cuban-American playwright raised in the shadow of the Soviet Union could devise as charming a reversal of Chekhov's dilemma as the one presented in A Park in Our House. In his intriguing new play, now receiving its South Florida premiere at Manalapan's Florida Stage, Cuban-born, Miami-schooled Nilo Cruz puts his characters in a sitting room from which they know there's no route to Moscow. And yet he gives them a ticket to transcendence. When this particular Cuban family can't go to Russia, Cruz brings Moscow to them.

Specifically, he delivers one Dimitri Yefimovich Khrushchov, a botanist from the Soviet Union who comes to stay with the Bustamante family as part of a government-sponsored cultural exchange. Dimitri actually lives in a small village outside Moscow, but as far as the Bustamantes are concerned, he may as well be Nikita Khruschev's first cousin. Cruz's version of the Chekhov prototype is charming; even more so is the evocative staging the play gets by guest director Benny Sato Ambush. Less satisfying, however, is the playwright's attempt to nail down the situation's dramatic possibilities. In this case, the tale of the Communist Who Came to Dinner leaves us hungering for more.

Set in Havana in 1970 (the year the playwright, then age ten, left the island with his family and landed in Miami), A Park in Our House centers on an extended family group that includes Hilario and Ofelina, a middle-aged couple who have taken in their teenage niece Pilar and nephew Camilo, who is mute. The youngsters' cousin Fifo, an amateur photographer who cuts sugar cane for a living, also lives with them.

Like most families, this one struggles against the boredom of daily life, a life that is particularly harsh in Castro's Cuba, where necessities like soap are in short supply. The title refers, on one level, to the lap-size model of a city park that Hilario has constructed as a diversion. A tiny symbol of civic utopia and an emblem of the hopes and dreams of each family member (one gives it a rather salacious connotation), the notion of the park also underscores the power of Dimitri's arrival, as though he were providing the spiritual regeneration the family desperately craves.

At one point Dimitri brings armfuls of herbs and medicinal flowers into the house, the better to help Ofelina repair the dry bed of her marriage. She seduces the distracted Hilario with jasmine, but not before Dimitri is bedded by Pilar. (The issue of Pilar's age is somewhat confusing here. Actress Greta Sanchez Ramirez appears to be about thirteen years old, making her advances toward the older man a tad unsettling.) As for Dimitri, he can't conceive of the importance the family places on his visit. He confesses that he had originally wanted to go to Brazil to study tropical plants; he's in Cuba only because, after years of waiting for a visa, he was assigned to Havana.

Much like Dimitri, I couldn't quite grasp what Cruz had in mind for his characters in A Park in Our House. On one hand, some of the play's power lies in the notion that their struggles aren't completely spelled out. Working with an impressionistic palette, Cruz offers a landscape of unfettered human emotions, ranging from Camilo's muteness to Ofelina's dream of growing huge quantities of hair. At times, these folks don't just want to go to the fabled Moscow; they want to leave their bodies. But for the most part, the symbols in the play never make a statement; they are simply vague and unconnected. The effect is like watching someone else's dream.

As dramatic characters go, the Bustamantes are a strange bunch. Cruz dilutes our ability to get close to them by making them all quite distant from each other. Husband and wife Hilario and Ofelina have the best-defined connection and thus the most recognizable conflict as ill-matched partners. The kids are orphans, and their emotional relationships with aunt and uncle are attenuated. As for cousin Fifo, he seems more like a convenient plot device than someone dramatically necessary to the story. He's well used by the director, however, who stages a spunky pantomime in which Fifo mournfully pores over a photo album. As he holds up each snapshot, the other characters strike poses that illustrate indelible moments of family history that remain otherwise unexplored.

Although set in Cuba in 1970, A Park in Our House isn't about Cuban politics, and there's really no reason it should be. It's enough that the characters want more out of life. The Cuban setting does add texture to the story, an oppressive cloud that hangs over the Bustamantes. Besides, if a Cuban American in his thirties wants to tell a story about his family, of course the Castro regime will color the characters' behavior. Included in the script are allusions to everyday Cuban realities: food obtained from the black market, meaningless bureaucratic jobs, limited opportunities to leave the island.

The problem here is that Cruz doesn't indicate in any way whether the dysfunctional universe of the Bustamante family is a result of Castro's Cuba or merely of being human. He seems to want to make a connection between familial and outer-world unrest, but, in the context of this play, the one scene with a passionate political debate comes out of nowhere. Cruz never makes clear the role that history is supposed to play in his drama. For example, we don't know whether Fifo's exasperation, which almost drives him to suicide, is a result of living in Cuba, where he'll probably work in the sugar-cane fields until he dies, or of unspecified longing.

The play does offer some powerful moments, however. Certain idiosyncratic visual images -- the sinister pink corpse of a black-market pig, for example -- do a good job of making the dreamlike aspects of the play accessible. And the dialogue too is laden with images, as well as poetry: Pilar insists that Dimitri evokes for her the smells of the Soviet Union; she sniffs his elbows and declares, "I smell Red Square."

But more than any element provided by the play, Ambush's staging magnificently straddles the worlds of the conscious and unconscious. Indeed, the director -- fortified by Michael Amico's handsome set in which the Straits of Florida are visible through the Bustamantes' windows -- makes the play more meaningful than it probably is. One of the reasons is that he draws intense performances from his actors, particularly young Alex Medina, who plays the mute Camilo with an intelligent expressiveness that eludes many actors with speaking parts. Jessica K. Peterson's Ofelina, for example, is somewhat shrill and mannered. Gilbert Cruz and Oscar Riba give seamless, if not always inspired, performances as Hilario and Fifo, respectively. Greta Sanchez Ramirez infuses Pilar with girlish energy, and Christopher J. Hickman makes Dimitri the sort of deadpan young Soviet you'd like to bring home to mother.

A Park in Our House is a relatively young man's play, and, for now, Cruz's lack of focus is eclipsed by his ambition. His work -- which includes Night Train to Bolina and Dancing on Her Knees -- has already garnered the attention of directors in noteworthy venues such as the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey (where A Park premiered), and off-Broadway's New Theatre Workshop. Florida Stage deserves considerable praise for bringing this South Florida playwright to the attention of local audiences, all the more so because his work has been ignored by Miami theaters, perhaps -- I'm speculating here -- because it doesn't take a stand on Cuban politics.

Does that mean it holds no interest for Cuban Americans? Hardly. Surely Cuban Americans comprise more than their anti-Castro politics. The price of letting this debut escape to Palm Beach County rather than presenting it in Dade, where Cruz spent his teenage years, is that advocates of Cuban-American culture are allowing a valuable resource to go unsung in their community. Wherever Cruz shows up, A Park in Our House is surely not the last we'll hear of him.

A Park in Our House.
Written by Nilo Cruz; directed by Benny Sato Ambush; with Gilbert Cruz, Christopher J. Hickman, Alex Medina, Jessica K. Peterson, Greta Sanchez Ramirez, and Oscar Riba. Through April 26. Florida Stage, Plaza del Mar, 262 S Ocean Blvd, Manalapan; 800-514-3837.

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