Exiles on Main Street

Exile is not simple. Both a physical reality and a psychological state, it can be imposed by governments or chosen as a means of survival. It breeds nostalgia and longing, shame and guilt. It can be a burden or a source of pride. But in all instances, it's characterized by distance -- from the actual place or the spiritual source of what we consider home.

For three generations of the Garcia family in Rafael V. Blanco's comedy Falling Fidel, that home is Cuba. True to the nature of exile, each family member's experience of it is complex. Abuelo longs for his homeland while denying the existence of Victor, the pro-Castro son he left behind. His other son, Carlos, insists he will fulfill his duty as a Cuban and return to the island when Castro falls, although life in Miami is very comfortable. Carlos's wife, Miriam, can't reconcile memories of lush greenery and lavish homes with rumors of decay. Their son, Eric, considers himself American despite his roots. And daughter Sofia and her black Cuban fiance, Alfie, insist they're going back when the time comes; for now, however, Alfie's family's business in New Jersey beckons to them.

Currently playing on Coconut Grove Playhouse's main stage, Falling Fidel is the first play that Blanco ever wrote A he has written six others since then. Like a first novelist writing the requisite coming-of-age story, he feels compelled to include everything in his affectionate depiction of this family. In addition to exile, he throws racism, religion, German unification, and abortion into a comedic stew -- but at times his touch is too light. Given its comfortable-looking set and the fact that family bickering is occasionally resolved through one-liners, Falling Fidel sometimes plays like a cross between the manic TV sit-com Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and a parody of Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Yet Blanco manages to keep it boiling through the first act. The situational slapstick of slamming doors, climbing in and out of windows, and running up and down stairs ends on a hilarious crescendo that, during intermission, sent me out to the lobby laughing and anticipating where the playwright would go from such a high point.

Where he goes is to more talk and fewer antics. Act two attempts to sustain some of the first act's farce through the shopworn device of a stolen wallet, but it is sluggish in places because Blanco can't resist making his "points" through long-winded polemical confrontations between siblings. He redeems himself, however, by allowing his characters, in particular Carlos, to tell the truth about their exile and to take responsibility for it. And he fashions an ending that, while not in the least bit surprising, poignantly conveys how painful it is to leave behind one's homeland.

Blanco's play succeeds despite contrived plot twists, Hallmark Card dialogue ("I don't want my little girl to get hurt -- I just want her to be happy"), and pat solutions ("We can change things together"). That's because enough of his material is genuinely funny and, in the end, moving. As a writer, he's sure of his subject, if a little attached to it (some objective cutting in act two wouldn't do any harm). As a director, he's confident. Blanco has been Coconut Grove's production stage manager for sixteen years. Clearly he knows every inch of the stage and is not afraid to use it.

The strong cast strides across the proscenium with exuberance. Only Andy Nobregas (Victor) seems a bit lost among the frenzied comings and goings, almost glassy-eyed behind the blur of his spectacles. But perhaps this is as it should be for a man exiled by his family in exile. And Salvador Levy (Abuelo) is hard to hear at points, as if he's out of breath, although this proves effective as his character takes center stage during the play's hushed finale. In contrast Marta Velasco (Miriam) and Emiliano Diez (Carlos) crackle with comic energy as lord and lady of the manor. Kristina Rodriguez is spunky and haughty as the rebel daughter in act one, although I found the direction in which Blanco sends the character in act two disappointing.

According to Blanco, Falling Fidel was a direct result of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event inspired the playwright to imagine the answer to the question that haunts Miami's Cuban community: What will happen once Fidel falls? As history updates itself by the minute in Cuba and Miami, Blanco has revised the play accordingly, and previously has produced a Spanish version, La Caida, in which Emiliano Diez first created the role of Carlos. To his credit, Blanco does not indulge in waxing romantic about his subject. Although he doesn't say anything new about the condition of exile, he gets to the heart of the conundrum without being heavy-handed: Even with memory and desire, can one ever go back and reclaim what was?

In the same theater, in the smaller Encore Room, with considerably less historical perspective, is singer-dancer-actor Ron Torres's Cuban lovefest, Havana B.C. It easily could be subtitled: "Let's Go Back to the Way Things Were A Immediately." This nostalgic look at Cuban nightlife from the 1920s through the 1950s in such legendary clubs as San Souci and the Tropicana echoes Falling Fidel's Carlos's assessment of his pre-Castro life: "I had no political opinions. My life was one big party." Torres's version of the party, despite unbearably corny references to I Love Lucy, is enjoyable and educational.

The hour-and-a-half program is a melange of song, dance, and anecdote, with mood changes nicely highlighted by Todd Wren's lighting design. Singing in both Spanish and English, Torres has a silky pre-rock-and-roll voice. He seems to hold himself back on certain numbers and doesn't always hit the notes he strives for at the end of phrases. But when his voice loosens up, his renditions are passionate, particularly on the songs "Magic Is the Moonlight," "Perfidio," "Malaguena," and "Perhaps, Perhaps," the latter preceded by a funny imitation of Nat King Cole speaking Spanish.

The short sets are punctuated by Torres's dancing -- salsa, mambo, cha cha, merengue, tango -- with his partner and sister, Debbie Schuster. The two negotiate the postage-stamp-size stage expertly, and Schuster wears outrageously wonderful glitter party dresses, courtesy of costume designer Russell Duke. Equally entertaining is Torres's patter about growing up Cuban, about the influence of Latin music on its North American counterpart, about the influence of Cuban culture in general. He also does a great parody of movies that he notes are as "authentically Cuban as Hollywood could create," complete with Alice Faye wanting to know why the peanut man singing about mani is singing about money.

Torres is an accomplished showman with an obvious command of his material, but I was disappointed that the show didn't deliver what the poster outside the theater promised: a steamy evening. Smooth, rhythmic, romantic, yes; steamy, no. A little more time for percussionist Tony Verdejo to let loose with Afro-Cuban rhythms might have helped in that area. Were those pre-Castro days really as sultry as everyone claims? Maybe it's only memory that makes them so.


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