Carmen Pelaez in Rum & Coke
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Carmen Pelaez in Rum & Coke
(© Kim T. Sharp)
For most Americans the Cuban exiles that live in Miami represent, at best, an exotic and foreign culture. At worst, they seem clannish and obsessed with Castro, unwilling, it would seem, to fully assimilate into mainstream America. After seeing Carmen Pelaez's sweet and intoxicating solo show, Rum & Coke, now at the Abingdon Theatre, you might well come to a new and sympathetic understanding of the Cuban-American experience.

The key line in Pelaez's richly embroidered show is spoken by one of the many characters she plays, when she refers to her people as "The Jews of the Caribbean." In a phrase, she creates a parallel that immediately evokes a suffering and wandering nation of upwardly mobile, educated people.

Pelaez frames her semi-autobiographical show as a search for beauty when her main character, Camila, rediscovers her roots in New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's there that she sees her great aunt's paintings on display and feels the pull of a Cuba that exists, at best, as a memory. (The works of her real-life great aunt, the much-admired painter Amelia Pelaez, actually grace the walls of MoMA.) She decides that she must go to Cuba to understand the meaning of that beauty. In her quest, Pelaez plays a variety of characters ranging from her own mother to a former showgirl in Havana's Tropicana Nightclub who now works as a lady's room attendant.

As a writer, Pelaez's greatest gift is the specificity of character that she creates. She wisely takes the time to allow her characters the digressive, humanizing details that make them three-dimensional. How wonderful, for instance, is the story that one character tells about giving up smoking. She promised God she would quit if only He would let her husband live when she thought he was having a heart attack. When it turned out it was only an acute case of gas, she was stuck with her vow. Now, a year later, the bitter comedy of her dilemma is richly observed. The story has no direct bearing on the themes of the play -- except insofar as it illuminates the humanity of her characters. And that's plenty!

As a performer, Pelaez isn't quite as elastic as some others who make quicksilver changes of personality and immediately transform themselves into other characters. Her voices tend to blend together more than they should but her characters, nonetheless, are easily differentiated less for how they sound than for what they say and how they say it.

Director Carl Andress has wisely taken steps to liven up the look of the stage with photographic projections that create a setting for what is a jewel of a play. Among the evocative pictures we see are shots of the Cuban countryside, of the crumbling streets of Havana, and of the interior of the Tropicana where Cuban history in song and dance is performed for tourists who don't understand what they're seeing. There is also a touch of video where the streets literally come to life -- as so much of Pelaez's experiences do in this play.