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Victor Manuel, the piano tuner in Two Sisters and a Piano, tells the play's sisters halfway through Act One that "there should be mandatory rules for the use of pianos. If they are not being played ... If they are not being put to good use, they should be donated to schools, hospitals, recreational parks." By this time, we are well aware that the lives of the sisters--Maria Celia, a writer, and Sofia, a free-spirited piano player--are also not being put to good use.

After all, the women are under house arrest in Cuba in 1991, just as the breakup of the Soviet Union is making things even worse in the island nation that Fidel Castro already controls with a cruel hand. The women can't go outside their family home, or even receive mail from off the island. But it's to the immense credit of playwright Nilo Cruz--a 39-year-old Cuban native, who has now lived in the United States longer than in Cuba--that Two Sisters and a Piano is much more about the idyllic music of the human heart than the strident strains of revolution. If you were to tear away almost all of the play's political content, you would still have a beautiful work by an enormously promising, poetic dramatist: a Tennessee Williams in the making.

Two Sisters and a Piano might have been a great play. But, like the two sisters hopelessly engulfed in serious political circumstances, Cruz's rich characters and lilting prose are trapped within an arrested, undeveloped plot. For example, I was literally on the edge of my seat waiting for the character of Lieutenant Portuondo to evolve into something more than a Machiavellian instrument of the Castro dictatorship; he seemed to have gradually fallen hopelessly in love with Maria Celia, whom he at first (rightfully) accuses of trying to escape to join her husband in exile. But, in the end, Portuondo comes off as a stock revolutionary, and the play's often fierce tension degenerates into melodramatic doggerel. "You want change?" the Lieutenant yells near the end of Act Two. "Things will change!"

Still, though I left The Joseph Papp Public Theater wanting more dramatic fire from Cruz's script, the production is marvelously acted. Adriana Sevan as Maria, the tormented but pragmatic novelist, is passionate and endearing. Daphne Rubin-Vega, Tony nominated as the original Mimi of Jonathan Larson's Rent, is no less magnetic as the flakier, more volatile Sofia. Paul Calderon plays the Lieutenant for all the character is worth--which, as noted, isn't as much as I'd hoped for. And, as the piano tuner, Gary Perez seems a hopeful link to the world outside the sisters' cloister without coming across as a Desi Arnaz-like jester.

Praise also to Loretta Greco (who previously directed this play at the South Coast Rep) for her fluid, seamless staging. Robert Brill's spare set, James Vermeulen's lighting, Alex Jaeger's costumes, and Fabian Obispo's sound design evoke faded elegance, as well as alternating moods of hope and gloom.

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