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Review: `Two Sisters and a Piano’
This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 24, 1999. All rights reserved.
A powerful new drama by Nilo Cruz, set in Castro’s
Cuba of the early 1990s, pits two women, or more specifically two
educated and accomplished artists, against the all-consuming brutality
of authoritarian rule. Set in a single room of a home that was once
the site of intellectual and artistic inquiry, the play opens —
and closes — with its occupants cowering on the floor together
like hunted animals.
Cruz’s disturbing and persuasive vision of the many guises of power,
deftly directed by Brian Kulick, opened at McCarter Theater last week
and continues to Sunday, March 7. Placing us in Havana during the
Pan American Games of the summer of 1991, a time that we know in hindsight
coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cruz gives us a plot
charged with verisimilitude yet rife with nuance and ambiguity. The
harsh realism of the action is tempered by the evocative, magic realism
of designer Mark Wendland’s layered, sky-swept set that is home to
flights of seagulls, their papery bodies inscribed with furtive texts.
Maria Celia, brilliantly portrayed by Ivonne Coll, is an influential
author, a woman in her mid-40s, still beautiful, and still burning
with the courage of her political convictions. Imprisoned for two
years for having the audacity to express her political views in writing
to Castro, she has now been placed under house arrest, presumably
as a public relations gesture in connection with the international
If Maria Celia’s passion is of the intellect, her sister Sofia’s is
a passion of body, heart, and instinct. Delicately portrayed by Marissa
Chibas, Sofia is the musician who brings the sweet sounds of the piano
into the home and longs for love — or at least sex. Emerging from
jail into the limbo of house arrest, Sofia’s yearnings are palpable.
Her incandescent features light up when she gets so much of a whiff
of romance. Unlike her sister, she’s no political animal. As she herself
admits, "I haven’t lost the habit of saying things the way they’re
meant to be said." Although reckless and childlike, Sofia is ultimately
more clear-sighted than her politically engaged sister.
The sisters now live amidst the decaying furnishings of the family
home, the most extravagant of which is the aging grand piano that
stands under a crystal chandelier in the center of a neo-classical
living room. While Maria Celia praises house arrest for the simple
pleasure she can take in walking from kitchen to living room —
so much farther than the meager dimensions of her cell — she now
suffers from having her vital correspondence with her husband and
supporters confiscated. She has not received a letter in three months.
Entering the sisters’ lives to the sound of gunfire and shattered
glass is Lieutenant Portuondo, a handsome cipher of a man who is the
linchpin of the play’s political and romantic intrigue. Flawlessly
interpreted by Bobby Cannavale, this country-boy turned revolutionary
is an avid reader — like everyone else on the island apparently
— of Maria Celia’s passionate stories ("I’m probably your
Number One fan"). He now takes sole control of the sisters’ home,
replacing the various military bullies who had regularly intruded.
Letters — three bundles of confiscated letters written
from abroad, primarily by her husband Antonio who is lobbying for
her release — are the lieutenant’s most powerful weapon against
Maria Celia’s personal and political convictions. These silent markings
on paper provide the ammunition with which he tantalizes the suffering
author. By offering to read parts of the seized letters aloud to her,
the lieutenant conspires to seduce Maria Celia in her own husband’s
The lovely sound of the piano is the play’s abiding metaphor. Now
a coveted treasure, pianos once populated the parlors of Havana purely
as a symbol of wealth and social class. This we learn from the welcome
arrival of the piano tuner, Victor Manuel, an ordinary guy, who will
try to rescue the sisters’ instrument from the ravages of time and
humidity. Genially played by Gary Perez, the piano tuner relieves
the household tension sufficiently for the sisters to let down their
"Dear Antonio," says Maria Celia, dictating a letter to her
husband at the opening of the second act, "Sofie has invited to
dinner the man who tuned our piano." She speaks in a room now
transformed by dozens of candles in silver candelabra, a burning sign
of Sofia’s romantic desperation and a canny parody of "The Glass
Menagerie’s" gentleman caller.
But the unexpected appearance of the lieutenant in a white linen suit
(was the piano tuner another Castro agent?) sets in motion seduction
and the sisters’ downward spiral of peril. Now, rather than simply
reading to Maria Celia the discouraging contents of her husband’s
letter, he places it in her hands, undermining her last defenses.
The multitude of candles is replaced by multitudinous plants —
ferns, bromeliads, birds of paradise — as if nature were rejoicing
at Maria Celia’s self-deceiving state.
As the play closes, Maria Celia is beginning yet another letter to
her husband abroad. There is banging and shouting outside the door.
They fear the worst.
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36 ($10 for under 25). To March 7.
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