The Color of Desire: Actors' Playhouse trades subtlety for flash

Perhaps it is time to cop to one of South Florida theater's dirty little secrets: that David Arisco, the resident director at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, isn't very good at directing straight plays. In show after show, his actors project all the vitality of figures in a wax museum. They face the audience too often. They speak too loudly and clearly, as though they were reciting sonnets rather than conversing. They are never ironic, achieving at best only a buckshot sarcasm made intentionally overobvious so as not to elude even the dimmest patron. Arisco always plays for the back row, for the none-too-bright. If his career were a government initiative, it would be called "No Patron Left Behind."

Arisco's love of the big and obvious makes him well suited to many musicals. His Urinetown was sublime (that show's considerable subtleties are encoded within the music itself), and his Les Miserables, though hardly my favorite production, was at least directed with a subtlety commensurate with the writing. Nilo Cruz's The Color of Desire is very much not a musical, yet Arisco cannot help but direct its actors in such a way that they seem, at every moment, on the verge of forming a kick line.

Anyone who has seen a decent high school production of a serious drama knows, more or less, what to expect from The Color of Desire. The actors are generally overearnest, and the ones who aren't overearnest are playing for the most obvious laughs. They know how to ape basic emotions with their faces, but they have no ability to incorporate these fleeting impressions into lifelike fictional beings. They have no quirks, no ticks; they exhibit no outward evidence of inner reflection. If they have interior monologues, they are accompanied by broad facial expressions and the sweeping arm and leg gestures.


The Color of Desire

By Nilo Cruz. Directed by David Arisco. With Hannia Guillen, Jim Ballard, Teresa Maria Rojas, Isabel Moreno, Barbara Sloan, Michael Serratore, Sandor Juan, and Nick Duckart. Through November 7 at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293; actorsplayhouse.org.

The Color of Desire is set in Cuba in 1960 and begins in a costume workshop beneath an old Havana theater. There, one young and two older women construct the dresses for plays they will never perform because of their politics. Two of these women speak with Cuban accents; the third, Leandra (Isabel Moreno), speaks with a Cuban accent only on certain occasions, while on others her speech dissolves into a distinctively Northeastern whine. ("And when will I," she says in Cuban-inflected English, before continuing in flat American, "get to meet this American maaan," pronouncing the final a as though the vowel were produced by bees swarming through her nasal cavity.) I cannot account for this, because Moreno lived in Cuba for decades.

The two older ladies are the aunts of the younger, who is being courted by an American in the tourism biz. The courtship is tragic from the beginning. The American, Preston (Jim Ballard), attempts conversation with his young lover, Belen (Hannia Guillen), who repays his courtesy by facing the fourth wall and acting like an actress during all of their interactions. Preston is nice enough to not complain, but he is preoccupied — by the memory of another, long-lost love, of whom Belen vaguely reminds him. Preston is a kinky fellow, and during his and Belen's second date, he requests she impersonate this other woman during their private moments.

Will she play along? Perhaps, because she wishes to flee to America with him. Her plans are continually undermined by the sporadic appearances of Orlando (Sandor Juan), a uniform-wearing party cadre who informs us of the doings of Cuba's increasingly totalitarian government, and of Oscar and Caroline (Michael Serratore and Barbara Sloan), a wealthy tourist couple that mambos distractingly across the stage during moments when Belen really should be digging her claws into her American beau.

Cruz's play is probably about things such as identity and false consciousness, and the way totalitarianism can be practiced in miniature in the bedroom. But what it communicates most of all is the senselessness of producing a play's first draft. The script is full of howlers, each of which is made doubly offensive by the fact that its author once won a Pulitzer. (Cruz took the prize for Anna in the Tropics in 2003.)

Belen is scandalized when Preston first asks her to role-play his long-lost love even though, in fact, Preston hasn't actually asked her to do anything; he has only made the vaguest intimation. It's as though Belen were a mind-reader. The same thing happens when Belen explains her role-playing to her aunt Albertina (Teresa Maria Rojas). "Did you accept on this?" asks Albertina, shocked, although Belen hasn't gotten around to explaining what "this" might be. A little later, Belen says to Albertina: "Don't tell Leandra about our conversation." She says this even though, mere seconds before, Leandra, who has a bad leg, could be heard clumping down the staircase not three yards away, obviously within earshot.

These errors represent lapses of common sense. Others represent lapses of taste. Some of Cruz's dialogue is so banal it seems like a parody. "I can't believe I'm getting married," Orlando says to Preston. Preston's reply: "Marriage only means one thing: You are trapped for the rest of your life." Orlando: "You never change, Preston." The men clap each other on the back and chuckle. Later, in a moment meant to be terribly dramatic, Preston asks Belen: "What does your pain taste like?" She replies, "Hell." Preston: "What's hell?" Belen: "Blood!"

The Color of Desire becomes more coherent in the second act. Its actors simultaneously loosen up and clamp down on their roles. Once the play works up a modicum of narrative momentum, appealing details begin making their impressions — most notably Ellis Tilman's costumes, which, especially on the ladies, exemplify both the beauty and the ridiculousness of the decadence Cuba's revolution was meant to abolish. One can enjoy the uncannily expressive pursing of Rojas's lips. And one can enjoy Nick Duckart, one of SoFla's finest actors, confined here to three small, almost nonverbal roles. Absent Cruz's words, he is free to do as he will with his parts as a waiter, an MC, and a gruff military apparatchik, and he walks away with the show.

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