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Exquisita Agonía

An opera singer contrives to meet the recipient of her dead husband’s donated heart in this bittersweet play by Pulitzer Prize winning author Nilo Cruz.

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Luz Nicolás, Pedro De Leon, Germán Jamarillo and Gilberto Gabriel Díaz in a scene from  Nilo Cruz’s “Exquisita Agonía” (Photo credit: Michael Palma Mir)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“This morning when I was walking my dog Bingo… I named him Bingo so that every time I call him I think I am winning something…” is typical of the flamboyant and celebrated opera singer Millie’s daffy wit in the bittersweet play Exquisita Agonía.

It’s beautifully written by author Nilo Cruz, the 2003 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Anna in the Tropics. Commissioned and presented by Repertorio Español, it is performed in Spanish with English supertitles that are projected on to small screens attached to the backs of the seats in front.

Because the heart not only beats to the forward rhythm of time. The heart also beats toward the past, in silence, resonating with all that was, with all those who were before us, before the world; when it began to be heard in the imagination of God, to the sound of the first steps of men and women, and the rumor of leaves and the wind…

Millie’s husband, the acclaimed composer and conductor Lorenzo recently died in a car accident and his heart was donated. Millie is still grief stricken and has come to the courtly Dr. Castillio who performed the operation to find the recipient out of curiosity and for closure. After going through the proper channels she is permitted to correspond with that person and a meeting is arranged.

Amér is a thoughtful young man from South America in failing health who came to the United States and was given Lorenzo’s heart. He is concerned that his personality is altered by the stranger’s organ. The surgical scar is likened to the image of an apple tree. Imanol is his charming and protective older brother. There’s a preliminary gathering at a hospital chapel and in the second act everyone goes to Millie’s house for dinner.

Gilberto Gabriel Díaz and Germán Jamarillo in a scene from Nilo Cruz’s “Exquisita Agonía” (Photo credit: Michael Palma Mir)

Her two grown children are in attendance. Romy is a free-spirited pregnant and unwed tattoo artist. Tommy is a melancholy wisecracker who hasn’t distinguished himself professionally in the music world. The madcap Noël Coward tone shifts to Eugene O’Neill as family secrets are revealed and resentments erupt. We learn of Millie and Lorenzo’s troubled marriage and how emotionally damaged her children are with Amér and Imanol caught in the crossfire.

Mr. Cruz realizes his scenario with his patented style. There’s rueful humor, Chekhovian reveries and a sense of the mystical all with a demonstrative Latin sensibility. The dialogue is filled with passionate eloquence and is made even more pleasurable by experiencing it in Spanish.  Some sequences have characters reciting their letters which allows for reflective ruminations.  The play takes place in the contemporary United States with several of its figures having been born in other countries.

From the film noir opening to the combative finale, director José Zayas has staged this arresting production with visual flair. Mr. Zayas’ sensitivity for the material enables the cast to mine all of the play’s comedy and emotion.

Gliding around in one opulent ensemble after another, the sleek Luz Nicolás is the perfect diva as Millie. Ms. Nicolás’ mature girlishness, put on hauteur and vocal prowess all contribute to her hilarious and touching characterization. Nicolás’ embrace and kiss with Amér is deeply moving.

Wearing a lab coat, the white-haired Germán Jaramillo is a marvelously sunny Dr. Castillo. Mr. Jaramillo’s twinkling eyes, deliberate speech pattern and warm presence enrich his delivery of several reflective speeches.

Soraya Padrao, Luz Nicolás and Gonzalo Trigueros in a scene from Nilo Cruz”s “Exquisita Agonía” (Photo credit: Michael Palma Mir)

Lean, wiry and his hair in a man bun, Gilberto Gabriel Díaz’s is tremendously soulful yet playful as Amér and makes a subtle impact with his shaded performance.  The athletic and jocular Pedro De Leon offers a highly appealing portrait of heroic masculinity as Imanol.

The animated Soraya Padrao is captivatingly feisty and tender as Romy. The achievement of Gonzalo Trigueros’ commanding agony as Tommy is heightened by his leading man good looks as weakness clashes with handsomeness.

The stage’s back wall is adorned with large framed glass windows that boldly change from a range of colors that include smoky gray, cobalt and crimson. Manuel Da Silva’s lighting design throughout the presentation is an equally compelling accompaniment. Scenic designer Raul Abrego’s windows are complemented by his artful selection of colorful modern furnishings and accessories that allow the scenes to fluidly transition from place to place. David Lawson’s sound design adeptly renders the numerous musical commentary pieces that include a portion from Satie’s Gymnopédies.

An explosion of pastels characterizes Fernando Then’s dazzling costume design that represents each character with panache. There’s Millie’s lustrous floral prints, gleaming coats and swirling scarfs in a variety of hues, Tommy’s blinding white trousers and pink blazer, Romy’s quasi-Goth getup, Amér yellow raincoat, Imanol’s tropical shirt and lime trousers and Dr. Castillo’s gray suit and red shirt and tie.

Ravishing on all levels, Exquisita Agonía entertains and enraptures.

You know, fish are remarkable creatures. They’re known to remember faces. The ones at my store know me. They gather on one side of the fish tank when they see me, because they know I take care of them. It’s curious, if you stare at them for some time, they can help you calm the heart. I know they do help me. I always feel delighted when I look at them, and I feel more accepting. And with acceptance comes patience with things that are difficult for me to comprehend. And I think it helps me not to reject what’s been given to me.

 Exquisita Agonía (extended through January 27, 2019)

Repertorio Español, 138 East 27 Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-225-9999 or visit http://www.repertorio.nyc

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (525 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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