The Color of Desire, a two-act play by Cuban-born, Miami-raised Nilo Cruz, premiered last night at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Cruz, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics, sat unassumingly in the audience in a dark ivy hat as his play unfolded before a packed house comprised mainly of geriatrics.
The Color of Desire is set in Havana, in 1960, a year after Castro took power. With the revolutionaries already confiscating property and businesses, and putting their ill-wishers before firing squads, cool-lit Havana invites its bemused inhabitants to indulge in fantasy, if only to escape the frightening reality of Castro’s boots and beard for a spell.
The play opens on Leandra and Albertina, out-to-pasture actresses and probably widows. Relegated to costume mending, the women discuss how time has stolen their femininity.
“Old age is ruthless,” Leandra says. “It doesn’t give a damn what sex we are.”
Enter Belén, the women’s nubile niece, who is distraught about not getting the lead in her company’s upcoming production. But unlike her aunts, Belén has youth – perhaps the one asset even Castro cannot confiscate – and the prospect of her date this evening with a wealthy American shipper soon lifts her spirits. Her aunts share her excitement, but only because they hope the man will rescue Belén from Cuba’s shadowy fate.
When we meet white-suited Preston, he is abrasive and insincere, an American boor who has purchased – not, as he believes, found – a “sense of place” in Cuba. Nonetheless, he wows the easily wowed Belén with a literal snap of his fingers at the waiters in Havana’s swankiest nightclubs. By the morning, she is in love and anxious to be loved back.
As it turns out, the first date was an audition. Preston does not wish to court Belén, but merely to cast her in the role of Emilia, a seductress who fled Cuba – and a lovesick Preston – after her own lover disappeared (or faced a firing squad, we don’t know). At first, Belén indignantly rejects the proposition, but she changes her mind after Preston agrees to do his best, scout’s honor, to get her off the island.
From there The Color of Desire develops somewhat predictably, with Belén falling deeper in love with Preston while he obsesses over Emilia and his business’s inevitable seizure. With the Revolutionary Unknown hanging over all of the action, the audience knows early on that neither fantasy nor prayer will bring about a happy ending.
This is not to say The Color of Desire isn’t worth seeing; it is, particularly at the Miracle Theatre, whose intimate space is a right fit for a sensual play. But in the end I think Cruz misses the mark. The theatre-within-a-theatre-within-a-theatre setup is contrived, and the Revolutionary backdrop does not succesfully evoke the emotional urgency he is after. This is largely due to Preston’s being so unlikeable that Belén’s heartache fails to resonate.
While Cruz delivers many lines of his signature smoke-scented poetry (Belén’s “dark hair emanating a dark hope”), his script is laden with stiff and unnecessary elucidations of Communism, Cuban history, and character symbolism. At one point, Orlando, a bearded and booted revolutionary, clarifies for the audience that Preston, in his white suit and polished shoes, symbolizes Capitalism. Duh.
If the play itself was a bit disappointing, the makeup of the audience was more so. DON’T GET ME WRONG. It wasn’t that there were so many old folks there. It was that there were so few younguns. I mean, here we have the premier of a sexy play by a young Pulitzer Prize winner with Miami roots, and the majority of attendees are collecting social security.
So what? you ask. Well, for one thing, I would have preferred to have detected rapture instead of offense when Preston pinned a lingerie-clad Belén against his bedroom wall. (“Oh my God,” said the unamused septuagenarian seated behind me.) More importantly, a young audience would have hinted at a vibrant thespian class in Miami, one that might save the city from the purgatory of recurring runs of Wicked and Jersey Boys. Alas.
After the play, I spotted Cruz in the parking garage with Teresa Maria Rojas, whose kookiness as Albertina provoked genuine laughter and pity. I asked him if he prescribed the various modes of escapism explored in The Color of Desire — role play, fantasy, naïveté, denial, the theatre itself — to people who find themselves living a harsh reality. Considering how every character who succumbs to escapism in the play pays for it with tears, I was surprised to hear him answer “yes.” He said he had heard many stories of Cubans seeking escape through the arts, especially music. Fifty years since Castro took over, Cruz said, this is still the case.
“Escapism is a mechanism of survival,” he said.
The Color Of Desire, by Nilo Cruz
Actor’s Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre
Oct. 6 – Nov. 7