Conchita, a cigar factory worker in 1929 Tampa, has just been asked by her husband what her lover does to excite her. While staring into the middle distance, thinking about whether to answer, she unrolls a tobacco leaf, pale almost to the point of transparency, and smooths it on her bare thigh. The leaf cleaves to her like a second skin as Conchita stares straight ahead, absent-mindedly unrolling a second leaf and smoothing it a little higher on her thigh. Her eyes are tranquil, her husband’s feverish.

This moment, fraught with longing and sensual heat, captures the mood that playwright Nilo Cruz is intent on conjuring in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Anna in the Tropics. But it also makes you ache for more moments like it in a theoretically incendiary drama that only rarely smolders at Arena Stage. Though Cruz makes sure there’s always plenty going on—modernity vying with tradition, machismo crashing up against feminism, literature combating workplace boredom—the conflict likely to be most of moment to audiences is the script’s prosaic plot battling its poetic sentiments to a frustrating draw.

Credit Cruz with a nifty, if overly complicated, setup. When a handsome new lector, hired to read aloud to workers as they roll cigars, selects Tolstoy’s romantic potboiler Anna Karenina as his text, he inadvertently places himself at the apex of a couple of triangles. One involves Conchita and her unfaithful hubby, Palomo, who is startled when his wife responds to his own infidelities by taking the dashing lector as her lover. Another involves Cheché, whose wife ran away with a previous lector, and who is distraught when he realizes that Conchita’s sister Marela, on whom he has an unrequited crush, pines for this new guy. There’s also a business entanglement involving Cheché, who wants to bring machines into the factory (not merely to modernize the place, but also to drown out the lector); Santiago, who favors traditional thigh-rolling techniques, but whose gambling has placed the factory at risk; and Santiago’s wife, Ofelia, who hired the lector and distrusts Cheché.

Santiago and Ofelia, incidentally, are parents to Conchita and Marela, and somewhat more tangentially related to Cheché—he’s Ofelia’s half-brother, or something like that—but in this proto-telenovela world of Cuban émigrés, there are blood or marriage ties everywhere.

The lector reads, the women argue literary details, the men argue business details, and the play lurches toward a climax involving rape and gunplay that’s so heavily foreshadowed, and so carefully calculated to resolve every plot question, that it can’t help feeling authorially imposed. Cruz is much better at articulating his characters’ thoughts than at finding ways for them to interact. Listen to these factory workers musing on fantasy (“a bicycle dreams of becoming a boy”), or wondering whether the advent of fast cars is affecting the consumption of cigars, or recalling an aged lector whose heart wasn’t strong enough for the stories he read, and you sense the liveliness of their intellects. But watch them fuss over who’ll sleep with whom and they turn into soap-opera constructs—the repressed uncle, the innocent ingénue, the drunken father. Cruz can get everyone up there on stage and get them talking, but he can’t seem to invest their stories with the forward motion that propels drama.

Jo Bonney’s attractive staging doesn’t do the evening any damage, but neither does it light a fire under the plot. Her designers have created a neat, spacious, pleasant factory, not a cramped, airless space where passions might flare, so, the word “tropics” in the title notwithstanding, nothing onstage suggests even subtropical heat. The director does, however, elicit strong performances from a cast that’s mostly new to Arena. Chaz Mena gives Cheché’s doubts and dreams a surprising resonance, especially given that the character is pretty much the villain of the piece. Mateo Gomez and Marian Licha are nicely grounded as the family’s elders, and Michele Vazquez is winsome as its resident innocent. The trio whose situation most resembles that of the characters in Tolstoy are sharply realized, with Yetta Gottesman bringing assertiveness to Conchita’s sexual reawakening, Felix Solis cutting Palomo’s cluelessness with vulnerability, and Jason Manuel Olazábal inflecting the lector’s readings with an appealing intelligence and maturity.

None of which really makes the characters as compelling as they need to be for Cruz’ story to rise above melodrama. What the play does have going for it is a literary mode of expression, whether the author is quoting Tolstoy or allowing his characters their own linguistic flights (“Sometimes I detect sad trees in your eyes”) between readings. I long ago gave up trying to figure out what the Pulitzer committee was thinking—sometime between 1963 (when it opted not to give an award to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and 1981 (when it honored the sitcom Crimes of the Heart)—but I’ll venture a guess that in saluting Anna in the Tropics, it was betting not so much on the play as on Cruz’ future.CP