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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
prize this past April for his new work about a family that works
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,
"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
(Smits), as he reads the workers the romantic and turbulent novel
"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy, a story that sparks their
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
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
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
it something of a "miracle" that she was cast in
at the New York Theater Workshop. Her most recent New York appearance
was in "Fucking A" at the Public Theater, the latest
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
daughter in the family that owns and works together in a cigar
It seems that the unhappy Conchita only musters up the will to
her philandering husband after the lector (Smits) begins to read
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,"
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
"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
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."
cried on the phone together," I tell him. Smits graciously
"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
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,"
of Glory," and "My Family, Mi Familia" (a lauded film
about barrio life) — it is his New York theater credits,
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
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
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
moving play about loss and redemption in the aftermath of the
"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"
"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
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
flexible and generous because he earned a bundle on his successful
"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
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
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 —
I ask if there is a new play I can read for. The last 12 months have
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
$48. Wednesday, September 17, 7:30 p.m.
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