In a world where even die-hard theater maniacs can be plagued by plays that never end, the Signature Theatre Company offers a curiosity: a play that ends too soon. Running a little over an hour, the world premiere of Maria Irene Fornes's Letters From Cuba is a woozy, daydream of a play that pulses with it's own inner-Caribbean heat.
One of America's great living playwrights, Maria Irene Fornes has always seemed like one of New York's most under-appreciated treasures. The American pantheon of playwrights is clogged with brash men's men, and Fornes sticks out for her subtle style, defining herself against the Mamets and Shepards of the world. Her plays aren't always accessible, like her absurdist Mud, and some are emotionally cold, like Fefu and Her Friends, but her lean use of language puts her in the tradition of playwrights like Chechen and Pinter. In a Fornes play, what isn't said is usually more important than what is.
Letters From Cuba is neither absurd nor cold, but rather a love letter--a romantic distraction filled with mature sentimentality. It is a surprisingly sincere and musical play that lulls you into a trance with its musings on family, love, and loyalty. The play alternates between a bohemian apartment in New York City and a lonely rooftop in Cuba as it introduces three friends: Fran, Marc, and Joseph. They are each artists in some way, lounging about on their palettes and lazily contemplating how to write poetry.
Fran is a Cuban studying dance in New York. Letters from her brother Luis, who lives in Cuba, punctuate her days. Luis loves his home--even though many members of his family have fled it--loves his family, and sees the world through a poet's eyes. A benign love triangle builds as Fran falls in love with one of her friends, and Luis pines for the company of his sister. The play interweaves familial, romantic, and platonic love into a singular feeling of closeness and affection, suggesting that humans tend to overly categorize love instead of accepting it as the ultimate glue that holds us together.
The performances are uniformly beguiling, with Chris De Oni standing out as the wise Luis. Forlorn and brimming with reserved passion, De Oni brings a playful dignity to a brother who is simultaneously lonely and satisfied. As his sister, Tai Jimenez is an agile delight with a commanding presence; she moves and speaks with a grace that makes you wish you could call up and chat with her character. As the two friends Marc and Joseph, Matthew Floyd Miller and Peter Starrett are child-like without being childish, and wear their characters' skins easily and without pretension.
The brief musical interludes add to the innate lyricism with which Fornes imbues her play, accentuating the dreaminess of the dialogue and performances. Well designed and lighted, Signature has done a wonderful job staging this production. In keeping with the company's mission of focusing on one playwright each season, this is Fornes-year at Signature, with Letters From Cuba being the only premiere.