They say we all choose our friends, but you've probably never had to make the kind of conscious decision that the characters in Senel Paz's Strawberry & Chocolate do. Directed by Roger Robinson at 777 Theater and based on the Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate, also written by Paz, Strawberry & Chocolate touchingly examines the complex relationship between two men whose culture and government strictly forbid them to be friends.
Diego (Roy Arias) is a cultured gay Cuban man, somewhat past his prime, who lives alone with shelves of literary works, a collection of Maria Callas records, and the memory of a lost lover. At an ice cream parlor in Havana, he meets a staunchly heterosexual, angrily homophobic actor and would-be writer named David (A.J. Cedeño). Diego just loves strawberry ice cream, but David prefers chocolate, a very macho flavor. Diego saw David play Torvald Helmer in A Doll's House years ago, and he's been carrying the torch for the gay-unfriendly actor ever since. Turns out that David, like Diego, is a great lover of literature, but in Cuba it's tough to come by books that aren't boringly propagandist. Using a ruse, Miguel entices David back to his place, where David, fretful of someone seeing him enter Diego's apartment, finds himself torn between his desire for the books and his fear of association with a homosexual. After all, someone is always watching. He can't risk being labeled as…one of those.
David's fiercely masculine, Castro-loyalist comrade Miguel (Andhy Mendez) disapproves of any consorting of that kind. Miguel, who sports a thick, revolutionary beard, wants to know what's up with David and his relationship with Diego. David's not going soft, is he? Switching teams, maybe? He better not be. People like Diego are anti-revolution, insurgent, law-breaking perverts, among other insidious things. David couldn't agree more. So Miguel tells David to spy on Diego and get the dirt on him. But as David gets to know Diego, his feelings begin to change. He finds himself paying Diego frequent visits, ostensibly because he wants to read those books but really because he enjoys Diego's company. His loyalty to the government and its policies, however, puts him at odds with the genuine affection he feels for Diego. Ultimately, he has to decide which means more to him: Miguel and the revolution or Diego and his friendship.
Strawberry & Chocolate pleases like a small dish of ice cream on a hot day. Its flavor is pleasant because it's familiar, and it feels cool and agreeable going down. The play is full of conflict, but it never reaches a level of high tension, with the exception of Miguel's violent outburst in the second act. Even that doesn't shock, though, or at least it shouldn't if you've been paying attention. You know what you're getting with this play, so don't ask for more.
The production's chief appeal comes for Arias' funny, heartfelt performance as a middle-aged gay man who wants desperately to share himself and his love of life with another man, even if the relationship must remain nonsexual. All of us fear being alone, especially as we get older, and Arias gives this aspect of Diego's character a poignancy that stays just shy of maudlin. We see how isolated Diego must feel in his small apartment, the larger part of Edward E. Haynes Jr.'s well-designed, tropical-themed yet quietly sad set. Arias makes us believe that though Diego's intentions may not always have been pure, his offer of friendship is.
Cedeño and Mendez, two newcomers to the stage, lack Arias' attention to nuance. Where Arias inhabits his role, they play theirs. Still, both young actors imbue their characters with a real sense of that bitter fear and self-loathing that creeps under the skins of homophobes and manifests itself in some of the ugliest human behaviors. Mendez captures that anger and self-hatred well, so well that you cringe a bit when he walks onstage, and Cedeño has the whole introspective yet confused straight-boy thing down pat.
Strawberry & Chocolate has the talent and smarts for a satisfying evening of theater, and it will appeal to gay audiences for its topicality and tasty bits of eye candy. Don't expect to be blown away, but you'll find its flavor agreeable.