Beauty of the Father
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 14, 2006
There was a time when winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama meant that at least your very next play would get a first-class Broadway production. Nowadays, even the most heralded playwrights get no such guarantee; the shabby treatment that Nilo Cruz is currently receiving is a sad case in point. His Anna of the Tropics, a gorgeous work, got a lovely (if misappreciated) Broadway production a couple of years ago. But his next play, Beauty of the Father, has been wedged into the entirely unsuitable Stage II space at Manhattan Theatre Club, where it's been carelessly mounted by director Michael Greif in a staging that makes it almost impossible for us to judge whether the script itself is any good at all. Certainly this particular production, notwithstanding a valiant performance by Priscilla Lopez, is well nigh catastrophic.
The play takes place in and around the home of Emiliano, a painter who lives on the west coast of Spain. He was estranged from his wife for many years; she has recently died and their college-age daughter, Marina, has decided to come to visit him for the first time in about a decade.
Emiliano's household is complicated. He lives with Paquita, a woman near his age who is his housekeeper, and Karim, a Moroccan, about 20, who is his sometime lover and—for emigration purposes—Paquita's husband. And Emiliano's near-constant companion is another man, or the ghost of one: the spirit of playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who is the subject of Emiliano's current painting and, it seems, his obsessions as well.
As soon as Marina and Karim meet, the chemistry between them is palpable. Complications ensue. But the soap-opera quality of the story (essentially a love triangle, or even a square, with father and daughter at two opposing ends), which is stressed in Greif's naturalistic production, seems to me intended to be more incidental. I think that Cruz has written a play about acceptance; about the temporal nature of life and love; about the way that, as a famous movie puts it, this or that romantic coupling doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
But if there's magic, romance, or profundity in Cruz's play (and I am convinced that there is), Greif and his creative team have managed to scuttle it. The performances—except, sometimes, for Lopez's animated turn as Paquita—are grounded in the mundane. Ritchie Coster, apparently uncomfortable as the gay dad, plays Emiliano so stooped over from worry and care that it's impossible to believe that this man is an artist with an active enough imagination to conjure a dead man to talk to. Oscar Isaac fails to deliver the poetry and showmanship of the living Lorca or the wisdom of his spectral self, while Pedro Pascal and especially Elizabeth Rodriguez, their inexperience telling on them, simply flounder as Karim and Marina.
The environment, meanwhile, seems designed to actively destroy whatever theatrical illusions may remain. Mark Wendland's set depicts Emiliano's studio as a raised island covering most of the MTC Stage II playing area. Spatially it confused me: where in Emiliano's home are we supposed to be? This is, apparently, where he spends most of his time: so why are there no seats? where (importantly, for a painter) are the sources of light? Entrances and exits are made from both ends of the stage, seemingly arbitrarily, and with no sense of a larger containing structure. I thought about this stuff A LOT—a very bad sign.
Wendland and his fellow designers Miranda Hoffman (costumes) and James F. Ingalls (lighting) rely on a pallette of browns and tans and beiges. Could be warm and earthy, but instead it's just dull and ugly, and again not at all suggestive of the artistic temperament that supposedly fuels the play's main characters.
Another of Greif's choices—the use of dialect coach Deborah Hecht—presents further distractions. Presumably all of these people are speaking Spanish to each other (though we're hearing English); if anyone's speech might be accented, it would be Marina's, right? But it is Coster who speaks with an accent, and one that is so thick that it's impenetrable about a third of the time.
So this production of Beauty of the Father, rather than serving Cruz, manages to defeat him rather soundly. I know that if this had been the first of his works that I'd ever seen, I'd be in no rush to see another.
Let's hope that Cruz—and other members of that cherished but oft-disrespected community, America's playwrights—is better served elsewhere, and soon. Meanwhile, MTC is about to give the world a new play by last year's Pulitzer winner, John Patrick Shanley. My fingers are crossed.