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Beauty of the Father

Nilo Cruz's touching and sexy new play pays homage to Federico Garcia Lorca. logo
Oscar Isaac and Ritchie Coster in Beauty of the Father
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
At the start of his touching and sexy Beauty of the Father, Nilo Cruz brings on the late Spanish poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca as a character. There's method to his fancy; Cruz wants it understood the he's about to offer a generous helping of the dramatic poetry he likes composing.

Lorca -- dressed in white, holding a cigarette at a dapper angle, and behaving like an Andalusian version of the poetic American playwright Tennessee Williams -- says with no preliminary ado, "Five o'clock in the afternoon. The hours that bullfighters get killed. There was no death today at five o'clock in the afternoon. No, no death recorded. Perhaps there was a wound. But there is always a wound in the world, open and exposed for everybody to see." It's an arresting first measure. Oscar Isaac, moving like an enchanted torero in Miranda Hoffman's striking outfit, portrays Lorca throughout as if he's both surprised and pleased to have been wafted in from the afterlife.

The play's initial moments are also intriguing because sound designer Darron L. West has already floated guitar music influenced by the kind of cante jondo (deep song) that Lorca believed was a key to the spirit of his homeland. West keeps that insinuating music going as if it were a persistent 1940's film score. At the beginning of the second act, however, the music is performed live by the versatile Isaac, whose playing of the guitar is as romantically melancholy as his elocution.

Cruz makes it clear that Lorca is also a metaphor for the spirit of Spain as he "converses" continually with Emiliano (Ritchie Coster), the play's protagonist. A sculptor working in an atelier facing the Mediterranean, Emiliano is expecting a visit from Marina (Elizabeth Rodriguez), the daughter he abandoned some years before. When she arrives, more forgiving of her father's long absence than might have been expected, she becomes involved with the odd little family unit that Emiliano has substituted for her and her recently deceased mother. This surrogate family consists of two live-in lovers, Paquita (Priscilla Lopez) and Karim (Pedro Pascal), the latter a Moroccan perfume purveyor. While Emiliano is enamored of both, he is committed to neither. Indeed, Paquita and Karim have married for convenience and are awaiting his citizenship papers so they can divorce; when they do so, the patient and realistic Paquita can at last marry Emiliano.

Not realizing just how complicated the sleeping arrangements are, Marina allows herself to be seduced by Karim -- well, they seduce each other -- which sets off emotional fireworks. In their turns, Emiliano is riled and Lorca is generous with his dark wisdom. The plot of this sexual and familial enterprise thickens when a rifle is hauled into the action and eventually goes off. (Chekhov would smile with gratification.) Just how it thickens won't be revealed here.

To appreciate this follow-up to Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer-Prize winner Anna in the Tropics, it's not necessary to be fully conversant with Lorca's canon, or even a small percentage of it. But it's worth keeping in mind that Cruz is unquestionably determined to instill this play with duende, that bruising and bruised spirit embodied by the Lorca figure. In this regard, he is certainly more successful than he was with Anna, at least on the evidence of that play's Broadway production. (There are those who maintain that the Chicago staging brought out every facet of the piece.) The only drawback here is the father-daughter conflict; there isn't much of one. Cruz leaves the impression that, in going for poetic atmosphere, he has gone soft instead -- and punches withheld are contrary to the heady concept of duende.

Nevertheless, Beauty of the Father is commanding as directed by Michael Greif with his own sense of the poetic and duende. Isaac casts his spell while circling the players on Mark Wendland's attractive and uncluttered set, with its waves-hugging-the-shore backdrop, and the others respond with their own acting magic. Coster's earthy, conflicted Emiliano meshes with Lopez's clear-headed but frustrated Paquita, while thin-as-a-pencil Pascal's Karim goes sensuously with Rodriguez's fresh and bright Marina. The quintet's combined appeal goes far toward engendering sympathy for the poetry of people who are trying their confused best to connect.

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