Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 10,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Hot Opener: `Anna in the Tropics’

by Simon Saltzman

There is no Pulitzer Prize awarded to the best cigar

roller in America. But playwright Nilo Cruz was able to win the

coveted

prize this past April for his new work about a family that works

together

in a cigar factory in Tampa, Florida. Almost as impressive is the

fact that Cruz also won the services of popular television actor Jimmy

Smits, who was smitten with the play after one reading, to play a

leading role at McCarter Theater.

"Anna in the Tropics" is the first play to open the McCarter’s

new 380-seat Roger S. Berlind Theater. Already in previews, opening

night is Wednesday, September 17, for the show that runs to Sunday,

October 19.

"Anna in the Tropics" is set in 1930, at the end of an era

when machines are beginning to replace the hand workers. The story

revolves around the effect of an incendiary lector, a workplace

educator

(Smits), as he reads the workers the romantic and turbulent novel

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy, a story that sparks their

socialist spirit.

Cruz is also the first Latino playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The play, which also won the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New

Play Award ($15,000) at the Humana Festival for New American Plays

in Louisville, Kentucky, also boasts a company that includes the cream

of America’s Latino actors, directed by Emily Mann. Three of these

cast members — Smits, Priscilla Lopez, and Daphne Rubin-Vega —

join me for a pre-rehearsal chat at the new theater.

"Sure, I smoke cigars — I’m a Latina," says Daphne

Rubin-Vega,

whose dark eyes are as expressive as the open smile that appears when

she starts to talk about learning not only her dramatic lines, but

also how to roll a cigar. At the moment it seems she is even more

enthused about the pot roast she cooked for the cast the previous

night at her temporary Princeton apartment.

Like Lopez, who made Broadway history singing "What I Did For

Love" in "A Chorus Line," Daphne Rubin-Vega made the kind

of big Broadway breakthrough that most actors only dream of. After

winning the role of Mimi in the hit musical "Rent," the late

Jonathan Larson’s updates take on "La Boheme," Rubin-Vega

regained the national spotlight as Magenta in the splashy New York

revival of "The Rocky Horror Show."

Rubin-Vega first met Cruz when she was cast as Sofia in "Two

Sisters

and a Piano" at the Public Theater in 1998. Although she did not

appear in McCarter’s 1999 production of Cruz’s play, she works with

him again on this one.

Singing with a girl group, studying acting, and dance, and appearing,

as she says "off, off, off, off-Broadway," Rubin-Vega

considers

it something of a "miracle" that she was cast in

"Rent"

at the New York Theater Workshop. Her most recent New York appearance

was in "Fucking A" at the Public Theater, the latest

production

by the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Lori-Park’s. Does

she find it miraculous to be speaking the words of Cruz, the 2003

Pulitzer Prize winner?

In "Anna in the Tropics," Rubin-Vega plays Conchita, the

oldest

daughter in the family that owns and works together in a cigar

factory.

It seems that the unhappy Conchita only musters up the will to

confront

her philandering husband after the lector (Smits) begins to read

Tolstoy’s

tumultuous novel. "Although I’m just discovering Conchita’s life,

her heart is very easy for me to understand," says Rubin-Vega,

whose roots are Panamanian.

"It’s important for me to win the approval of Jimmy, Priscilla,

and Emily Mann, who I have never worked with before," she says.

I ask if she has done anything so far that made her want to slink

away and hide. "The first day of rehearsal we were all gathered

around looking at the set. I hadn’t had any breakfast and my stomach

started to gurgle so loud it sounded like an alien was inside me,"

she says.

Now that she has appeared in films with Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon,

and Matt Dillon, how does she rate Smits? "Oh, a 10," replies

Rubin-Vega.

"I’m everybody’s mother. It’s my new lot in life," announces

Lopez, who enthuses about having just finished playing the role of

Tina’s mother in the recently completed film version of the

long-running

Off-Broadway hit "Tony and Tina’s Wedding."

In "Anna" she plays Ofelia, Conchita’s mother, a role she

says she models after her own mother who, just as Cruz’s character,

is strong and opinionated. The Bronx-born, Brooklyn-raised, Montclair

resident says that Hollywood still looks at of Latinos to fill the

role of maids and domestics. "You go anyway and read for the part

and discover you are not Latino enough."

There is no mistaking the striking Latin countenance of Jimmy Smits,

the tall, dark, handsome figure in the baby-blue workout suit with

color-coordinated cap. First off I express my wife and daughter’s

belated condolences on his death on TV’s "NYPD Blues."

"They

cried on the phone together," I tell him. Smits graciously

responds,

"Thank them and tell them only my character Bobby Simone died

— I’m still here."

As a popular Latin leading man, Smits may be best known

for his 1990 Emmy winning performance as tyro attorney Victor

Sifuentes

on television’s "LA Law," and for "NYPD Blue," a role

that earned him five Emmy nominations. More than his numerous film

assignments — which include "Star Wars: Episode II,"

"Price

of Glory," and "My Family, Mi Familia" (a lauded film

about barrio life) — it is his New York theater credits,

particularly

those for the New York Shakespeare Festival ("Twelfth Night,"

"Hamlet"), that reveal Smits’s passion and keen interest in

the power of a dramatic literature.

Earning his BFA from Brooklyn College’s Center for the Performing

Arts and an MFA from Cornell’s Theater Arts Program, Smits’s

excellence

as an actor has been seen Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, Woman’s

Project at the American Place Theater, and Playwrights Horizon, as

well as at such prestigious regional theaters as the Colorado

Shakespeare

Festival, Center Stage, and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Landing the pilot for television’s "Miami Vice" in 1984 was

the break Smits needed. He was soon signed for "LA Law" in

1986. It was after such cable TV movies as "The Cisco Kid"

and "Solomon and Sheba" that Smits replaced David Caruso in

"NYPD Blues." But you cannot keep this actor off the stage

for too long. "I just got back from Berkeley where I did `The

Guys,’" he says enthusiastically. "The Guys" is Anne

Nelson’s

moving play about loss and redemption in the aftermath of the

tragedies

of 9/11.

"Although I had heard about a Latino winning the Pulitzer Prize,

I didn’t know that the reading that George C. Wolfe wanted me to do

at the Public Theater was the prize-winning play," says Smits.

He had seen Cruz’s "Two Sisters and a Piano" at the Public

and feels a sense of mission in his "Anna in the Tropics"

role.

"I want to be able to support a young playwright with a distinct

voice, someone who is so culturally specific," he says. "I

play a lector who is paid by the workers to tell them about current

events and discuss art and read to them from the great works of

literature."

What Smits says that he finds most interesting about his character,

Juan Julian, is how he opens the workers’ minds to politics, social

issues, and religion.

Smits stops me short when I suggest that perhaps he can be

artistically

flexible and generous because he earned a bundle on his successful

TV series.

"Not so," he says. "I’m comfortable, but I’m frugal. Most

important is for me to show my versatility in the roles that come

my way. But you have to remember the business part of show

business."

Smits, who already has a new TV series under discussion, says that

"because of TV I haven’t done as much theater as I would

like."

Smits has countered this tendency by seeking out the roles he can.

"Every time I come to New York, I call New Dramatists Guild"

— the professional association of American playwrights —

"and

I ask if there is a new play I can read for. The last 12 months have

been good."

Now it’s back on the stage for Smits and the company of dedicated

Hispanic actors, all of whom have evidently found in "Anna in

the Tropics" a play that sparks their dramatic spirit.

— Simon Saltzman

Anna in the Tropics, Berlind Theater at McCarter

Theater ,

609-258-2787.

Press opening for the play that runs to October 19. $30 to

$48. Wednesday, September 17, 7:30 p.m.


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