Havana: Self-Indulgent Destination

From: The Cincinnati Enquirer
Date: September 29, 2002
Author: Jackie Demaline

Playhouse in the Park’s Shelterhouse embarks on theatrical adventure this season, inviting audiences to places they haven’t been before.

First stop: Havana, an attempt to discover identity by revisiting the past, a tentative and complicated gay love story (featuring some brief, heavy necking).

The play, in fact, opens with Federico (Chez Mena) in bed (alone), speaking what, to a melody, would be the sappiest of love songs with gushy rhymes and overly rapturous allusion. This love song isn’t to a longed-for partner, it’s to a long-lost homeland.

Look a little more closely at the largely bare stage and, inlaid in a Caribbean blue floor the silvery shape of Cuba slashes a diagonal across the playing space.

Federico (clearly a stand-in for playwright Eduardo Machado, who is in part inspired by personal experience) was one of the 14,000 Cuban children sent to the United States back in 1960 on now-controversial Pedro Pan airlifts, as parents tried to save their children from a life under Fidel and Communism.

Federico has been consumed by that rupture in his life for three decades. The play’s topic is his eventful first return trip to his homeland even as the issue of a new lost boy, Elian Gonzalez, rages around him.

Under the sure hand of director Ron Daniels, Mr. Machado’s drama gets a far better production than in its world premiere two years ago at the Humana Festival of New American Plays (under the title When the Sea Drowns in Sand).

Federico and his “straight” best friend Fred (Paolo Andino) and their Cuban driver Ernesto (Antonio Edwards Suarez), play off each other beautifully as they explore definitions of identity, friendship – even patriotism.

The topic “embargo” is intermittently dropped into the conversation, usually with the grace of a lead balloon – Mr. Machado doesn’t blend the personal and political with ease.

The performance is flavored by the underscoring of Richard Marquez, playing a variety of Cuban drums on a tiny balcony overlooking the stage.

But Havana is also underscored, far more monotonously, by the “me-me-me” of Federico’s self-involvement.

Mr. Mena does a terrific job of making Federico, an essentially egocentric, self-concerned intellectual, likable.

But his gleeful, ongoing self-torment – “Did I abandon my country? Did it abandon me?” – gets old, in large part because, as a 9-year-old, it wasn’t his decision to stay or go.

I couldn’t help thinking the playwright is as self-indulgent as his central character, whom he has romanticized even as he avoids the scariest questions – and most pertinent – dramatic questions like “Why can’t I let go?”

Leading off a Shelterhouse season that is going to be risky business compared to the recent past I wish the risks were being taken for a better play.

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