Although Cuban-born, American playwright Nilo Cruz’s best-known play, Anna in the Tropics, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 2003, is set in Tampa, Florida, several of his works are set in his native Cuba. One of these, Two Sisters and a Piano, last seen in a major production in New York at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival in 2000, is now being streamed by New Normal Rep, the second in a series of a four-play online season that continues with works by Julia Blauvelt and Nikkole Salter.
New Normal Rep reunites two of the actors from the original New York production, Tony Nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega with Gary Perez, and reteams Rubin-Vega with Emmy and Golden Globe Award Winner Jimmy Smits who co-starred in the Broadway production of Anna in the Tropics. Although the play is set thirty years ago, the situation of two sisters serving a long-term house arrest has parallels to our recent pandemic situation.
Directed by the author, Two Sisters and a Piano reveals its roots as a radio play from its reliance on poetry and language: this is a cat-and-mouse game in which the participants use words to circle each other in order to achieve their goals. But who is the cat and who is the mouse? Set in 1991 in Havana during the Pan-American Games and while the Russians are pulling out of Cuba, we meet sisters Maria Celia, a well-known novelist (played by Florencia Lozano), and Sofia, a pianist (Rubin-Vega), both under house arrest in the crumbling premises that they grew up in. As a punishment for a petition that Maria initiated and signed, the sisters were first place in prison and now are confined to their childhood home, and have not received any of their mail for months.
Lieutenant Portuondo (Smits) has been assigned to their case and regularly makes visits to interrogate them. As time passes, the lieutenant (who has been reading Maria Celia’s novels) becomes infatuated with her, a doomed one-sided romance as she is happily married though her husband Antonio has fled to the United States and is now in Europe attempting to get the sisters released. Part of the equation is a new story that Maria Celia has not been allowed to publish but claims that she has destroyed.
As the sisters reveal themselves as opposites, Maria Celia as cool and phlegmatic and Sofia as emotional and passionate, they both attempt to run rings round the lieutenant as well as manipulate him for their own ends. They eventually convince him to get them a tuner for Sofia’s beloved piano and when Victor Manuel (Perez) arrives he appears to be taken with Sofia as well. However, Sofia is unwilling to let things continue as they are and precipitates the play’s denouement.
Lozano remains a philosophical character as an impassive and detached prisoner who seems to always to be in full possession of her faculties. Rubin-Vega, on the other hand, always seems about to erupt into anger or fury as the endless time passes slowly. Smits has the more difficult role as he walks a tightrope of suspicion and understanding, while at the same time revealing his true emotional dilemma. In his brief appearance as the piano tuner, Perez is amusing as a man who immediately bonds with Sofia over their mutual love of music.
The direction by Cruz keeps the play moving while at the same time allowing the poetry to breathe. He has obtained very different characterizations from his quartet of actors, the two trapped women making the most of their situation and the two men ostensibly doing their assigned jobs. Vanessa Corrente’s sophisticated multi-media design for the interior of the main room of the crumbling house places all of the actors in the setting while allowing for various angles of the room. The costume design by Gema Valdez immediately defines the characters and the tropical setting. The production includes original music by Sanchez & Murin as well as solo pieces by Chopin, Debussy and Gottschalk.
Nilo Cruz’s rarely seen Two Sisters and a Piano is evocative of its time and place as well as creating a poetic mood of an earlier era. While the play does not have a great deal of action other than psychological import, it is very suitable to streaming as it allows us to focus on the characters and the conversations which are the drama of the play.
Two Sisters and a Piano (April 21 – May 23, 2021)
New Normal Rep
For tickets: NewNormalRep.org
Running time: one hour and 57 minutes performed without a break between the two acts