|Christina Pumariega shares a laugh with Marianna Bassham. Photos: T. Charles Erickson.|
The disappointment that greeted Melinda Lopez's Becoming Cuba at the Huntington on opening night was muted, I suppose, but nevertheless ran deep (official denials in the press notwithstanding). Although "dismay" may be the better term. For Lopez has been getting a lot of support from many quarters since her fledgling effort, Sonia Flew, soared from the Huntington to theatres around the country ten years ago. But honestly, she has been mostly sputtering since that highly praised debut, and a decade is a long time to wait for a second major play from a young writer. So it was quite frustrating to see that while Sonia did actually fly, Lopez can't seem to get airborne this time; it's not that she crashes and burns, exactly - it's more that she never lifts off.
And the causes driving her failure to launch were clear to many in the audience - who no doubt were likewise aware of the long development process behind this jumbled assortment of nascent dramatic notions. For not only has Becoming been a decade in the begetting, but this is its second coming, so to speak - it premiered to mixed reviews in California last summer. But apparently that gentle rebuff hasn't led to a coherent revision: Cuba is static for its first half, then limps along in its second, thanks to sensational but disconnected episodes that never quite coalesce into a plot.
Ah, plot. The spurned stepchild of the development process, always playing second fiddle to political correctness. Whenever I ask myself, "Why don't plays actually develop in development?" a lack of attention to plot always looms as a likely answer (and predictor of failure). In Becoming Cuba, the issue is particularly acute, as Lopez's set-up - an embattled pharmacy (with a lovely proprietor torn between political sympathies) in besieged Havana around 1898 - offers as many opportunities for suspense and taut construction as Casablanca provided, well - Casablanca.
But the playwright ignores all these - or perhaps lacks the craft to respond to them (Sonia Flew also suffered from disconnected tangents) - and substitutes instead an identity-politics schema which she muses on at length: her uncommitted heroine maps to both the Old World and New, and is entangled with both a Cuban rebel (her half-brother) and an American journalist (her half-lover). What's more, as if to fill in a gallery of stereotypes, ghosts of Cuba past drop by to dispense political platitudes: conquistadors, lost boys, and even Havana's equivalent of Pocahontas have their moment in the sun, or at least the spotlight, to deliver some sardonic stand-up to the gringos.
Chris Tarjian and Pumariega go through the motions.
What can I say - my cup overflowed with teachable moments, but I hungered for a few dramatic ones. And the lesson plan proved slowly paced at best - I often longed for the little "beep" that would cue Mrs. Lopez to change the slide. And those with an abiding interest in our neighbor to the south should go forewarned - the playwright has unearthed no little-known incident or ironic coincidence from the historical record. So if you have more than a passing knowledge of the Spanish-American War, Lopez has little to impart; and if you don't, you probably don't care all that much anyway. (Likewise the hints at parallels with present-day intrigues remain vague at best.)
Oh well; as if to add insult to injury, the production itself is flaccid - often miscast or misdirected, and completely mis-designed. It's very rare that everything goes wrong at the Huntington, but I guess this is just one of those perfect storms. Director M. Bevin O'Gara has drawn neither pain nor passion from her leading lady, the gorgeous Christina Pumariega, who manages a poised indecision but little else. And Chris Tarjian, her supposed swain, doesn't seem to have been clued in to his heart-throb status; there's no spark between this American hero and his Cuban heroine. Local light Marianna Bassham is another wash as the nervous aristocrat who may be suffering from syphilis (that thud you just heard was a heavy symbol hitting the stage). But to be fair, the rest of the cast manages better - sexy Juan Javier Cardenas is a Latin match just waiting to be struck, which makes you wish Lopez could figure out what to do with him; likewise Rebecca Soler gives a lusty punch to every scene she's in, and young Brandon Barbosa proves as charismatic as an old pro.
But alas, these are all supporting players, and their theatrical fire is snuffed out on their respective exits, as the playwright returns to her endless ruminations. Weirdest of all is the miscalculated design. The Huntington is famous for its sets - but designer Cameron Anderson provides an elegant abstraction that only plays to the author's abstracted attitude, and conjures nothing of the actual Havana. One wonders, therefore, what sort of "Cuba" Lopez imagines her characters are "becoming." Certainly not a flesh-and-blood one.