A Cuban society woman turned inept American housekeeper drags a recalcitrant mop bucket across the patio between her awkwardly spread legs. A wide-eyed dilettante, her bird-like frame wrapped in tropical hues, reads a nuclear fallout shelter's user manual -- including bits about what to do with your radioactive hair -- in a comically cheery voice. And an embittered woman with expressive eyes spits cathartic accusations at her abusers, sending chills down our spines.
There were some charged moments in the world premiere of Michael McKeever's Moscow at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater last night. It's just that when you connect them with the rest of the play, the result becomes only barely tolerable.
Set in a Coral Gables home, Moscow, Zoetic stage's last stand of its first season, is about the Montefiores, a prominent South Florida family, and the upheaval of their "normalcy" that comes with the changes of 1960s America.
Lorelei (played by three-time Carbonell winner Irene Adjan) is the unlikable active alcoholic and oft-pregnant matriarch of the family; Lucy (Zoetic company member Margery Lowe) is her flighty wannabe artist sister; Clayton (Tom Wahl) is her logical, change-phobic husband; and Olivia (Lela Elam) is her exasperated live-in maid.
The story attempts to sew in pieces of South Floridian and American history: the first influx of Cubans during Fidel Castro's reign; the building of the "North-West Highway," now known as I-95; the Kennedy assassination; desegregation; the height of the Cold War; and the fear of nuclear bombings and communist infiltration during the Cuban missile crisis.
If that sounds to you like a lot of historical subject matter to tackle in one play, you're right. And "sew in" doesn't aptly describe what the play actually achieves. We'd more likely call it "plop in," as the writing includes a lot of heavy-handed dialogue that feels like a thinly veiled lecture on the climate of the age.
As if painting a historical portrait of 1960s SoFla weren't enough responsibility, the show also takes on the task of telling a few personal -- and hard to care about -- stories. Olivia, the family maid for 24 years, has announced she'll be leaving the estate to take care of her ailing father in Overtown, which the white women in the show refer to as "Colored Town." The Montefiores are incredibly possessive of their servant, and attempt to manipulate her with offers to triple her salary and even mildly threatening warnings that she's sure to regret her decision down the road (which they make good on in an unbelievably cruel way).
The relationship between Olivia and Lorelei struck us as particularly cryptic. In one scene, the bitchy roost-ruler nearly weeps over the ex-maid's failure to visit or call in the year that followed her leaving her post at the estate. But when Lorelei does interact with Olivia,she's either barking at the woman to schlep her another martini, making wan claims that she's like the third sister of the family, or telling her how unimportant she is. We get that the women's emotional connection is obscured by race and class distinctions, but we're still unsure if Lorelei was supposed to be secretly in love with Olivia or what. That seems like the only explanation for the explosive, passionate, and erratic shifts in the character's behavior toward the maid. That and maybe the fact that she's always both pregnant and drunk. In any case, the unfocused and untrustworthy development between the two provided a discordant feel.
Meanwhile, sister Lucy, who is constantly trying her hand at new artistic disciplines (and failing miserably), is attempting to figure out the meaning of her life. Her insipid quest is overly documented, though the script does a good job of making fun of her existentialism. For example, she announces proudly that her director/boyfriend decides to set his production of The Three Sisters (yes, the intentional analogy between the title of Chekhov's play and Moscow's three "sisters" was rather obvious) against a post-nuclear Holocaust backdrop. "They're all bald by the fourth act!" Lucy says, delighted. As we said, a lot of the dialogue was witty. But McKeever's individually clever lines maketh not an altogether cohesive -- or enjoyable -- production.
Inez, a Cuban immigrant who replaces Olivia as the family maid, is played by Elena Maria Garcia, a two-time Carbonell winner and a long-time veteran of South Florida and national productions. As the Amelia Bedelia-type incompetent maid, she deftly provided knee-slapping comic relief every time she set foot on stage. Her comic timing was impeccable, and she delivered her lines with such a spontaneous feel, it seemed as though she'd written them herself. But again, as hilarious as she was, trudging clumsily across the blue-tiled patio set, her vignettes did not patch together well with the other bits and pieces of the play.
Tom Wahl gave a sturdy performance as Clayton, the fearful-yet-manly patriarch who wishes things would just go back to "normal." And Luis Restrepo, who played Hector, a young Cuban artist stowing away on the family's property, gave an entertaining performance, coming across like an affected young Peter Lorry.
Again, the actors did a lovely job and some individual scenes were powerfully dramatic or powerfully funny. But taken as a whole, Moscow felt disjointed and contrived, and left us, like Clayton, craving simplicity and clarity.
Moscow runs 7:30 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday through April 15 at the Adrienne Arsht Center. Tickets cost $40. Go to arshtcenter.org.
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