Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smitsin Anna in the Tropics(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits
in Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Maybe the members of the Pulitzer Prize committee for plays are cigar smokers. Maybe they'd lit up and were ruminatively inhaling and exhaling when they read Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics, which is set in a Tampa cigar factory during the watershed year 1929. If, indeed, a predilection for cigars among the judges is the explanation for this play's having received the 2003 Pulitzer nod, it's worth noting that said judges wouldn't have been able to smoke in a theater, where they might have assessed Cruz's work as they presumably assessed the other two finalists: Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out.

If the judges had experienced Anna in the Tropics in performance rather than on the page alone, they might have recognized that this is a play of modest virtues. It's an only intermittently successful attempt on Cruz's part to wave appreciatively at Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams while depicting what happens to a group of factory toilers, most of whom are relatives, when a lector (or reader) whom they're paying out of their own pockets begins intoning Tolstoy's Anna Karenina while they work. In the time it takes to say "Happy families are all alike," these people begin to see themselves as Tolstoy's 19th-century Russians and to notice that they're encountering similar moral dilemmas. (This includes one of them likening himself to Tolstoy's autobiographical Levin, a character that's often cut from film and television adaptations of Anna Karenina.)

It perhaps goes without saying that Cruz's premise is literary. This is a welcome springboard at a time when attention to the classics is waning; the thought of barely literate people being read to and, as a result, being able to quote from Cervantes and the Brontës is exhilarating. And the fact that this tradition is threatened, as it is in Cruz's play, would seem to be an extremely promising starting point for a play. But only some of that promise is realized as Cruz inaugurates the proceedings after a prefatory scene in which a couple of characters are discovered gambling at a cockfight. The bettors are Santiago (Victor Argo), who owns the Flor de Cielo factory, and Cheché (David Zayas), who's slowly acquiring a significant share in the business as payment for others' gambling debts. When Juan Julian (Jimmy Smits) arrives at the factory in a meaningful white suit to intone Anna Karenina's dalliance with Vronsky, it galls Cheché, who has a runaway wife in his recent past and hates being reminded of his plight. Santiago compares himself to Tolstoy's Levin and worries about losing the heart of his wife, Ofelia (Priscilla Lopez).

More turbulently, Santiago's older daughter Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega) finds herself slipping into Anna Karenina's slippers when she takes Juan Julian as a lover, to the consternation of her philandering husband, Palomo (John Ortiz, who doubles as the briefly seen cockfight odds-maker). Santiago's young daughter, Marela (Vanessa Aspillaga), doesn't so much see herself as any particular Anna Karenina figure; she wants to melt into the entire novel.

There are two ways to regard Cruz's handiwork. One of them is to marvel at his understanding that life constantly imitates art and his concomitant ability to put that understanding into action. Alternatively, one might note that Cruz sees worthy literature as accurately reflecting life and also influencing it. Well, duh! -- but no matter. If the lauded dramatist were able to present his true or tried-and-true inspirations in the poetic framework he aims for, that would have been more than enough to constitute a quality work.

In this important respect, Anna in the Tropics is inconsistent. There are scenes -- notably one in which the seven central characters test a new "Anna Karenina" cigar and comment on its distinction -- where theatrical magic holds sway. More often, however, Cruz's schematic efforts to establish Tolstoyan parallels undermine his intentions, and the appropriation of elements from other works feels heavy-handed: When Santiago suggests firing a pistol to celebrate the new cigar after Cheché has been stamping with hatred around Juan Julian in his symbolic white suit (Anita Yavich costumes the others in off-whites), there's not much doubt as to what's coming. Nor is there much suspense about what's afoot when Cheché makes one too many unrequited passes at Marela.

Foreground (l-r): Vanessa Aspillaga, Daphne Rubin-Vega, andPatricia Lopez; Background: Jimmy Smits in Anna in the Tropics(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Foreground (l-r): Vanessa Aspillaga, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and
Patricia Lopez; Background: Jimmy Smits in Anna in the Tropics
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Also problematic is the style of language in which Cruz unfurls his tale. Much of what Juan Julian says is meant to be poetic, and that's a twofold handicap. Firstly, it's risky to define a character entirely by flowery prose; as a result of this approach, Juan Julian seems more an emblem than a human being. Secondly, some of what Juan Julian spouts is drippy. "Sometimes I detect sad trees in your eyes," he says to Conchita after a torrid session. "You are clear and fresh as water," he slathers on Marela, adding, "Did anybody ever tell you this?" (Probably not.) When Cheché comes looking for Juan Julian with pistol in hand, it could be that he's angered as much by the lector's cloying way of expressing himself as by what the man stands for.

Juan Julian's elusive nature puts a strain on Jimmy Smits, who looks great whether he's reading the Anna Karenina excerpts or sitting silently in the background like a sign that says "I am a metaphor." The other actors are more vocal -- too vocal at times. In a protracted scene in the first act, John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega carry on an argument so loudly that she comes close to losing her voice. Priscilla Lopez, lovely in her off-whites, seems interested in getting her inflections stereotypically right, and Vanessa Aspillaga is unnecessarily flighty as the fresh-and-clear-as-water Marela. Victor Argo makes Santiago likeable and commendably subdued. David Zayas, an actor who is normally able to suggest multiple emotions simultaneously, only reaches convincing emotional heights when silently contemplating his failures with Marela.

When a contingent of usually reliable actors repeatedly misses the mark, a finger needs to be pointed at the director. In this instance, it's Emily Mann, who also neglected to pry a helpful set design from Robert Brill. The set is intended to look like a large cigar box under a wide sky, but it only boxes the actors in. Though Dan Moses Schreier has written some evocative music for the production, Peter Kaczorowski lighting could do more to suggest sweltering heat. None of these elements do much to offset the production's stasis.

Mann's McCarter Theatre treatment of the play (she scheduled it pre-Pulitzer) is one of three mounted in various U.S. cities during the last couple of months. Would Cruz's work be more convincing in Manhattan if one of the other productions had been imported? Probably not. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." To paraphrase, a good cigar may be a smoke but, sometimes, a play is only a play and not a prize winner.