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Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony)


By Ron Cohen


What is the nature of the human heart? Does it have memory, emotion, conscience?  Is it an extension of the soul, or the soul itself? Or is it only the engine of our physical being, an organ pumping blood to keep us alive?


These are the questions Nilo Cruz plays with in Exquisita Agonía and it makes for a complex drama that’s both provocative and poetic. The final fadeout leaves these questions hanging in the air, along with some plot points. Nevertheless, this is a significant new work by the Cuban-American author of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, which demonstrated the impact of great literature (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) when it is read to a group of Cuban immigrants while they toil away in a Florida cigar factory early in the 20th Century.


Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) is being given a world premiere production in Spanish, with English subtitles, by Repertorio Español, the esteemed 50-year-old company specializing in Spanish-language theater. The story centers on a heart transplant and the effect it has on both the recipient and the family of the donor. The donor is a world-famous composer-conductor by the name of Michael Lorenzo, celebrated as much for his charm as his talent and often referred to simply as Lorenzo. (The play carries a second title: Lorenzo, Lorenzo.)


When Lorenzo dies in an automobile crash, his heart becomes a life-saving gift to a young man named Amér (Gilberto Gabriel Díaz Flores), who has come to Miami for the operation from an unspecified country.


It is the yearning of Lorenzo’s deeply grieving widow Millie (an expressive Luz Nicolás), a famed opera star, to meet with Amér that sets the drama in motion. The story climaxes at a dinner party in Millie’s home where the presence of Amér and his older caretaker brother Imanol (Pedro De León) sets off a crescendo of emotions among Millie and her two children, her daughter Romy (Soraya Padrao) and son Tommy (Gonzalo Trigueros). Also present is the wise and kindly Doctor Castillo (Germán Jaramillo), who performed the transplant.


Brought to the fore is the habitual unfaithfulness of Lorenzo, and the damage it did to Millie and the children, especially Tommy who as a young boy was made to accompany Lorenzo on his tours, an attempt by Millie to quell her husband’s affairs. Also rising to the surface, if only momentarily, are the libidinous feelings engulfing Millie toward the man who now possesses her husband’s heart. It’s a situation that could set her against her daughter, who has also begun to feel something for the gentle-mannered Amér.


Finally, there is the impact of all this, both physically and emotionally, on Amér, in whose body Lorenzo’s heart now beats, a stranger to his being and whose influence he believes he is feeling. Certainly, the production’s most telling moment – coming not much before the play’s rather abrupt conclusion – is when Tommy uses his cell phone to call Amér, who is not far from him in the same room, and asks Amér to put his own cell phone as near to his chest as possible. Tommy then proceeds to talk to his father, telling him things never told to him when he was alive.


All of this is played out in rather straight-forward fashion under the brisk, no-frills directing style of José Zayas. The set design by Raúl Abrego is striking but not especially atmospheric, featuring two back rectangular panels made up of squares of colored light, the colors changing to denote different locations. And until the explosive moments toward the close of the second act, the production has the aura of a mild-mannered family dramedy. It brings out the comedy and a smattering of pathos but eschews the mysteriousness of the magic realism that gives much of Cruz’s writing its seductive appeal.


The performers are commendable in their verisimilitude, but Cruz’s lyrical writing and feverish plotting also seem to cry out for a good dose of the flamboyance that a Pedro Almodóvar might bring to the work, enriching it to its maximum potential.


And how good is that writing? For non-Spanish-speaking audience members, the English on the neat little individual screens posting the translations in front of them (Cruz wrote both the English and Spanish versions) flies by too fast to actually savor. But here are some samples:


Amér talking to the new heart in his body: “What is a heart? A port? A bay? A park? A refuge? No, it’s the place where the roads meet…like a train station through which fear travels, desire; it’s the place that startles me at night…from where the chill comes from, the panic that strikes me every day.”


 And here is the doctor’s poetic take on the subject: “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 there 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…”


Almost makes you want to check out your own heartbeat.


Off-Broadway play

Playing at Repertorio Español

138 East 27th Street


Playing on a scattered repertory schedule until August 3