It has been 13 years since we have had a major play from Cuban-born Nilo Cruz, whose “Anna in the Tropics” won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama following its world premiere at McCarter Theater and its subsequent Tony-nominated run on Broadway. That there is a special kinship between him, McCarter, and its artistic director, Emily Mann, is evident in that two of Cruz’s previous and much better and more potent plays, “A Park in the House” (1994) and “Two Sisters and a Piano,” premiered here under her guidance.
Despite readily apparent flaws and perceived omissions in the story, there is a glint of the magical realism and a gift for dramatic lyricism that is at the heart of Cruz’s talent. It is these elements that support and lend credence to what is otherwise a rather hackneyed story about a Cuban family involved in romantic brouhaha while living in critical financial circumstances in Miami in the present time.
A family has evidently come under the spell of Father Monroe (Raul Mendez), a good-looking and personable priest who has been afforded more than simple hospitality by one family member in particular. It’s no secret that the beautiful but husbandless 30-something Marcela (Hannia Guillen), who plays Schubert and Schumann on the piano at the church, has strong feelings for the Father and he for her — even under the eyes of Marcela’s teenage daughter, Trini (Katty Velasquez.) Their affair is also just barely kept under wraps in her home, where the family is also three months behind in mortgage payments. The priest tells Marcela not to worry. That’s nice. Add to this the angst of her disgruntled younger brother Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez), a recent returnee and drop-out after two years from a medical school in the Dominican Republic, and that of the aging but still romance-possessed yet senility-afflicted mother Martina (a superb Priscilla Lopez.)
It would be easy to call the basic plot romantic swill, though it presumably has as its target the constrictions and constraints of archaic religiosity and its doctrines. This is apparently what is tormenting the obviously much too progressive Father Monroe. The priest’s barely contained passion for Marcela is predictably troublesome to the family as well as being considered morally egregious by the local Bishop Andrew (Michael Rudko). Father Monroe’s protestations of the rules are enough to give the Bishop something close to heart burn. This, as the Bishop tries to bring the young, virile, and unsettled priest to his senses, or at least the kind of senses that the church approves.
One can turn to numerous film plots in which a priest falls for a fallen woman and is miraculously redeemed (or not) by the end credits. I most recently enjoyed “The Garden of Allah” in which Monk Charles Boyer succumbs to the allure of Marlene Dietrich on the sands of the Algerian desert. Among the many films on this subject is the less known 1960 melodrama “The Angel Wore Red” set in Spain during the Civil War in which disillusioned priest Dirk Bogarde renounces his vocation just in time to fall for gorgeous prostitute Ava Gardner. I can buy that one. I could also go on and on.
But back to Cruz’s more incredulous plot, we are asked to believe that Father Monroe, who tells us his mother named him after Marilyn Monroe (don’t ask), is apparently willing to sacrifice Marcela and her financially beleaguered family to the indignation of the community and their church, as he makes what is obviously a futile stand to condone physical intimacy.
Scenes between him and the Bishop are simply the same tired and tedious old arguments that continue to disrupt the Catholic church and its adherents. Haven’t we already heard all the arguments before about allowing or not allowing priests to marry or have sexual relationships?
The acting, under Mann’s able direction, rises to the requirements and necessities of the occasion with only Lopez actually lifting this romantic swill into the surreal as she swirls through some charmingly staged visions of herself with her deceased husband, Dario (also played by Alvarez). The play, with its handsome setting and lighting designed by Edward Pierce, does manage to hold our interest, and the title is lovely but . . .
Bathing in Moonlight, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, Through Sunday, October 9. $25 to $80.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.