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Imprisonment, in a play, lends itself well to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. But imprisonment also means waiting for either freedom or doom, and although there’s a self-evident suspense in the situation, it’s also static andif not a vessel for other, richer elementsa little tiresome.
Nilo Cruz’s Two Sisters and a Piano is an earnest and endearing, but ultimately unsatisfying, depiction of the slow torture through isolation of two sisters under house arrest in Havana. It’s 1991, and Maria and Sophia Obispo were in jail for two years because Maria (Greta Sánchez-Ramírez), a writer, dared draw up a manifesto about Russian perestroika and the potential for change in Cuba. Sophia (Nancy Rodriguez), a pianist, was the first among their circle of young artist friends to sign the manifesto. They’ve recently been released, thanks to the international advocacy of Maria’s husband, Antonio, who is abroad, but they are still under house arrest, visited solely by foul-mouthed, officious inspectors making inventories of their belongings, and by Lt. Allejandro Portuondo (Paul Morella), who oversees their case.
Maria whiles away the time writing, Sophia by playing the 90-year-old, rotting, rusting piano that their late mother played before her. They also knit bedspreads to make a little money, play old dance records, fantasize about romance and sex, eavesdrop (through the floor) on a neighbor, and remember better, as well as somewhat worse, times. Their hope is that Antonio, who has fled with the sisters’ father to Europe, will find them political sanctuary in Sweden.
The lieutenant, who intercepts their mail, is on to all this, and he toys with the sisters, Maria especially, teasing them with bits and pieces of Antonio’s letters, replete with ardent longing and thinly veiled political codes. But Maria teases the lieutenant, too, with fragments of sensuous stories in progress. Politics aside, he’s a fan of her work and falling in love with her. The closest thing Sophia has to a love interest is a sweet, bumbling, tongue-tied piano tuner, Victor Manuel (Lawrence Redmond), a fellow music-lover whom she pays, in part, with her father’s shoes and invites back for a dinner date.
The play is most successful in its remembrance of things past. Interludes of impressionistic, elegiac piano music by Ernesto Lecuona dot the sisters’ recollections of their brassy, cultivated mother and their dreamer of a father, who told them not to fall in love because he’d find a way for them to leave Cuba. The sisters’ home before their imprisonment was a bustling salon of sorts for their artist friends. The fact that they’ve survived their confinement together this long without going crazy and killing each other is testament to the sisters’ ties, their shared memories, their discipline, and the strange, enduring magic of the house, even though it’s now their cage.
Maria’s career as a writer isn’t particularly credible; the pieces we hear of one storyabout a woman seducing a harbor master in a glass tower while boats are being stolensuggest that it just isn’t very interesting. Nor is it terribly erotic, though it’s apparently getting the lieutenant all hot and bothered.
But the evolving romance between Maria and Allejandro is poorly drawn. It’s easy enough to understand what he sees in herSánchez-Ramírez creates a beautiful, strong character, bristling with wary intelligence and teasing humor. And one can even accept that Morella’s lieutenant might be a decent, if self-deceiving, fellow. But that she’d give herself to him conflicts with all she’s said and done, and all she will say and doeven as a simple lapse bred of loneliness, it doesn’t ring true. Allejandro is weak, and although his weakness is for her, weakness seems the one thing Maria cannot abide.
The sisters’ connection is better illuminated. Maria is the surrogate mother, proud and worried and scolding of Sophia, played with girlish feist and fragility by Rodriguez. But we wish we knew more about what two long years of jail meant for them, beyond being horrid enough, naturally, that Sophia would do anything rather than return. Sophia resents that her sister has had a go at lifelove, marriage, a career, even notoriety; Sophia’s own years are passing her by.
As Victor, Redmond lets a little Catskills seep into his Cuban. Nonetheless, the character is intriguing: a technician who’d rather be an artist. He spouts political claptrap about how household pianos should be inventoried so that they don’t stand idle as bourgeois symbols, but also boasts quietly that despite state censorship, “I play what I like in my house.”
The play needs more such characterizationlittle specifics that add up to a lot. As it is, we rarely get beyond types, albeit sympathetic ones. For instance, the lieutenant remains just short of three dimensions. When he’s drunk on vodka the closing night of the Pan-American Games, he lets his guard down and talks about his childhood in a dreary village of mud, where excitement was the anticipation of a hurricane that might blow him away. We don’t see that anticipation anymore. That it’s been dulled into vicarious thrills at the dreams of a rebellious woman writer may be realistic, but not too interesting to watch. Some indication of how the restless boy became the regimented man might give us a better idea of why Maria lets him into her inner life.
Morella is only adequate in the role. His early condescension convincingly drops to reveal an underlying passion, but though it’s fine that he’s the only cast member who doesn’t even attempt a Cuban accent, his anger is a paste-up. When he cusses, he just sounds as if he’s imitating an Al Pacino movie.
Daniel Conway’s set is spare enough to make the home seem barren, elegant enough that we still sense its grace. He’s found old-fashioned grillwork that’s at once a jail-like gate and the entry to a worn palace of imagination. A painted scrim, both scruffy and sunny, hints at a shore, so near and so far, humid with both anticipation and decay. Joseph Appelt, who designed the lighting for last season’s Indian Ink, again finds a memorable tropical palette for muggy middays and soft dusks. Sound designer Gil Thompson incorporates a tricky combination of piano, recorded, and street music.
Two Sisters has two splendid moments. One is the kiss between Sophia and Victor, stolen from circumstance, more meaningful than words, as momentous to them as music. It offers a sudden, vivid promise of love-filled lives, a promise that their realities certainly can’t keep. The other moment is the sisters’ dance to an oft-played LP. Maria instigates the dance to distract Sophia when Victor, probably too scared of the authorities to keep their dinner date, stands her up. She is all dressed up with everywhere to go, but forbidden to go there. That the sisters can find solace, and even a laugh, in a flirty pas de deux with no one else to flirt with iswell, almost enough to quietly break viewers’ hearts.
The problem is that these are moments director Serge Seiden masterfully steals from the script, and they rely too much on what we imagine the women’s experiences must have been. That we have to fill in so many of those blanks ourselves is Cruz’s failing. A poet turned playwright, he’s effectively conjured moods of melancholy and longing and frustration and despair, but hasn’t shaded that canvas with enough structure, character, and momentum to quite create another world.
Maria explains in a letter to Antonio that the guava tree on the patio is bountifulwhich is ironic given their situation, where rations are so scarce that they are compelled to use milk of magnesia as deodorant. The sisters can neither eat that much fruit themselves nor give it away to the neighbors who shun them. So they put the guavas around the house, Maria says, for their evocative scent. “It’s as if an invisible woman with a sweet perfume is with us, and the house feels less empty.” Coming from a woman who is quickly becoming invisible herself, who’s losing her sister to a madness made of vanished persons, hallucinated melodies, and irretrievable chances, the line has a mournful weight.
At such moments, Cruz brings poignant poetry to his drama. He does not bring sufficient drama to that poetry. CP