The setup: While the cigar-rollers toil in a small factory in '20s Tampa, a new "lector" reads to them to pass the time and alleviate boredom. He chooses Tolstoy's classic tale of adulterous passions, Anna Karenina, and their lives change forever. Tradition, morality and dreams dash against modernity, passion and reality.
The execution: You can almost smell the smoke inside the tobacco-stained factory at Country Playhouse in its colorful co-production with Talento Bilingüe. The mottled walls with transoms angle provocatively across the stage; the slatted doors, the linen pants and the sundresses scream tropics; and the workers' desks are appropriately battered and bruised. It's Nilo Cruz's claustrophobic play that doesn't fit. The foundation's sturdy, but it's the unending linguistic gingerbread he nails on everywhere that hobbles the play. In arch, overripe dialogue, the characters spout such hothouse poetry that the play fairly drips with humidity. However, it's all rather artificial, as if the characters have been sprayed with oil instead of sweating on their own. They don't talk, their words "nest" in people's hair; a kiss isn't a kiss, but someone who "slips into your mouth like a pearl diver;" and cigar smoke isn't smoke but "the veil of a bride." Who speaks like this?
There's so little heat between lector Juan (Jorge Diaz) and eager, unhappy wife Conchita (Cynthia Leal) that we must take their passion on faith. It's up to matriarch Ofelia (Lidia Porto) and husband Santiago (Luis Suarez), owner of the factory, to bring heart and sizzle into the play. Although Ofelia is prone to evocative language that doesn't suit her any more than it suits any of the other characters, Suarez plants her on earthy bedrock and anchors the drama with natural warmth. She's the most real of them all, and the drama brightens considerably whenever she's around. And Marela (Sayra Contreras), the young idealist who's always dreaming of a better life somewhere other than where she is, has a flapper's natural vivacity that neatly counterbalances the ache in her character.
The verdict: Once you get past the overly thick dialogue, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama catches you up in its melodrama and as a window into an exotic world. However, the evening's most authentic touch was the professional cigar roller seated in the lobby demonstrating her art. That's what's missing from Cruz.
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Through October 1. Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497. Spanish version October 7 through 16. TBH Center, 333 S. Jensen Drive. 713-222-1213.