Hartford Stage. Directed by Michael John Garcás
An interesting but ultimately unsatisfying play by Eduardo Machado about a cook, Gladys, in a well-to-do Cuban family who, when the fall of Batista sends Castro into power and the family has to flee, promises to stay in the house and hold it for the eventual return of the daughter of the family, Rosa. Much food preparation goes on on stage in the course of the play, hors d’oeuvres and tamales figuring prominently — tamales, Gladys explains, were the food of the indigenous people of Cuba. But she doesn’t comment on the fact that those people were almost totally wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors, who then proceeded to import thousands of African slaves to make Cuba the center of the world’s sugar industry. Thus the explanation in a chronology of Cuba printed in the program. So food is at the center — or at the epicenter — of this play, but its significance is never really explained. Machado in fact has the disappointing habit of raising interesting issues and then somehow failing to confront them. Characters are too closely tied to plot; they are more functionaries than individuals. When they speak, they are often over-articulate, almost as if they are given lines straight from the dramatist’s scenario.
Machado has a great interest in betrayal, and it manifests itself in the play in various ways. Gladys’s husband, Carlos, a somewhat dull-minded individual who was brought in as the family chauffeur when she was taken on as cook, gets caught up in the spirit of the revolution and uses it to justify his macho behavior of taking a mistress and fathering a daughter. Gladys accuses him of cheating on her and refuses to sleep with him from this point — but she still continues to feed him and provide his coffee. This is because she has made a promise to him, she says, to be his wife. Vows are important to keep, she believes, and her promise to hold onto the house is kept even when she must abandon Julio, her gay cousin, to the cruel depredations of Carlos, who says he will protect Julio only if Gladys allows him to move his mistress and daughter into the house. Gladys, feeling betrayed, refuses, and Carlos makes a sinister phone call resulting in the cousin’s being apprehended and sent to a camp, where he later dies. Before Julio departs, he screams in pain because Gladys will not protect him and accuses her of betraying him. She remains adamant. And so there is a curious calculus in the play that has to do with betrayal and promises kept and broken. Wonderful potential here. But stay tuned.
In Act III, the daughter of Rosa, Elana (played by the same actress, Joselin Reyes, who is not fully believable in either role and who somehow seems awkward and reluctant), returns to the house. There is a nasty scene in which Elana, who has come as a tourist at her own husband’s behest to see the house her mother lived in, tells Gladys that her mother hates her — they had had a touching if awkward scene of making friends in Act I — for having betrayed her and taken over the house along with the other “revolutionaries”; taken over by “niggers,” Elena says, repeating her mother’s word (to audible gasps from the audience). Gladys’s feelings of betrayal are on view as she protests that she did it all for Elena’s mother’s sake. But then we cast our minds back to the New Year’s midnight when Castro came in, when we saw Gladys refusing to serve the dessert and lighting up a cigar along with Carlos in celebration. What about that? Actions and consequences don’t seem to survive act breaks in Machado’s sitcom-like dramaturgy.
The same holds for Carlos, who in the second act, as third-tier functionary in Castro’s revolution currently does in Gladys’s cousin; he is still around, considerably older like Gladys, to chop the onions in the omnipresent kitchen, now serving as a restaurant. Times are hard. What happened to the double betrayer Carlos? We get a bland shadow of him only, at the last, as if all that happened in the distant past of Act II. In the world of the sitcom, the episode is king, and all the familiar characters and their look-alike offspring can be counted on to show up, regardless of deeds done, betrayals effected, promises foolishly or proudly kept. The show must go on, and it does.
Zabryna Guevara is a very good actress, and she makes Gladys into a real human being, triumphing over Machado’s overly schematic character. She is believable as a cook and as a human being. She got the usual “Standing O.” But she can only do so much, and it is not enough to save Machado’s play from mediocrity. I remember having the same misgivings about Machado’s earlier play, performed at the Hartford Stage a year or two ago, or more, about the boy of Jewish parentage secretly baptized, then kidnapped by forces working for the Pope, who grows up to become a priest and endorses what was done. Again here I had the feeling that Machado raises issues only to dodge them. Machado teaches playwriting at Columbia University and so may be responsible for hundreds if not thousands of sitcom plays proliferating among countless audiences who want a glimpse of what the betrayals of revolutions are like but don’t want to have to think long and hard about the issues they raise. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, Machado runs the gamut of analyses from A to B.