In 1939, the S.S. St. Louis set sail from Hamburg for Cuba with 937 passenger, most of them German Jews hoping to begin new lives away from the Nazis. Their hopes were based on a Cuban law which permitted people on a tourist visa to enter the country and stay indefinitely.
However, while they were in transit, the Cuban President revoked the law, and then refused to permit the St. Louis to land. The ship tried to make port in Miami, but the United States refused it entry — the most shameful episode in the history of American immigration policy until — well, until the next time we denied entry to people who sought refuge from slaughter. Eventually four European countries — Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium — welcomed them. Regrettably, three of those four countries later fell under the boot heels of the Nazis, and 254 of the St. Louis’ original passengers died in the camps.
If you go to Sotto Voce, you will learn this information from Ellen Morgan Peltz’s admirable program notes. You will not learn this, or much else about the St. Louis, from Nilo Cruz’s play, which seems to principally be about the predatory literary ambitions of a young Cuban Jewish scholar, Saquiel Rafeli (Andrés C. Talero). He wants something from Bernadette Kahn (Brigid Cleary), an aging Gentile writer whose lover was among the St. Louis’ passengers on that terrible voyage. Maddeningly, we never quite find out what it is.
A great play locates a mystery and slowly brings us (and sometimes its characters) to understanding. Consider, for example, Death of a Salesman, where we are at first confronted by Biff’s rootlessness and then learn terrible things about the Loman family. Sotto Voce does precisely the opposite. We begin with a tiny mystery — will Saquiel persuade Bernadette to take his phone call — and then dissolve into more existential questions about the play itself.
Such as: who is Saquiel, and what is his relationship to the St. Louis? He says early on that his grandfather’s sister was among the St. Louis’ passengers. But then how did Saquiel and his family come be in Cuba? Was his grandfather also on the ship, and was one of the few passengers admitted? Was his grandfather already on the island, waiting for his sister to arrive? Did he come afterward? If so, why? Cruz leaves no clue, and thus suggests the existence of a story much more compelling than the one that he tells.
But the bigger mystery is this: what is Saquiel doing, and why? If he is trying to research what happened on the St. Louis, there must be better sources than Bernadette, who was not on the ship. He says that he has uncovered a trove of her letters to her beloved Ariel Strauss, but he never asks if she has any that he wrote to her. Is he trying to get the reclusive Bernadette to reveal herself to him, as various literary journalists-on-the-make once tried to get interviews with J.D. Salinger? Maybe, but it seems that his field of study is the St. Louis, and not elderly writers. Is he trying to find out what it was like to be a Gentile in love with a Jew in Nazi Germany? (Hint: not so great). We haven’t a clue.
Instead of insight, the play gives us an account of Saquiel’s relentless stalking of Bernadette. He texts her. He calls her on the phone. He sends her flowers. He romances Lucila (Desiree Marie Velez), her lonely maid and companion. Bernadette and Saquiel engage in a lovely imaginary walk through New York. He it into an interrogation. When Bernadette, alarmingly, pretends that Saquiel is her long lost love, Ariel, he plays along. If this is a romance, then Silence of the Lambs is a movie about fine dining.
closes October 29, 2017
Details and tickets
Cruz, who I acknowledge received a Pulitzer for a different play, is a better poet than a playwright here. Leave aside the unearned and irrelevant climax to the first Act, which is straight out of the playwright’s handbook’s dictate that you always end the first Act with the worst moment. Cruz employs richly poetic language to no dramatic effect. Here’s one example: early in the second Act, Saquiel asks Lucila what she fears. “Bernadette,” she replies. “You. Myself.” Were this a significant moment in the play’s development, the actor would draw this line out, as she reconsiders each answer and substitutes a more honest one. Here, Velez spits the words out seriatim, since the play already has a half-dozen of these moments, and if they were all given full play it would add a half hour to the production. Must have looked great on the page, though.
That the play is so weak is a shame, because director José Carrasquillo and Theater J give it a really spiffy production. The cast is superb. Talero has an extraordinarily difficult job; Saquiel is the protagonist, but he has a rot in his soul. He seduces, but the possibility of abandonment always lurks. It would have been easier to play him as a villain, but that would subvert Cruz’s ambiguous intention, so Talero plays him as he is written, and thus allows the play’s ambiguity to convey to us. It is a challenge to do, and Talero does it. My hat is off to him.
The wonderful Cleary plays considerably older than she actually is (the play is set in 2000, so Bernadette must be at least in her 80s), and combines strength and vulnerability in a way beautifully designed to engage the audience’s concern and sympathy. Her accent is authentic, and both Talero and Velez have different Latin accents. (Lucila is from Columbia; I regret that I am not sufficiently familiar with the Columbian, as opposed to the Cuban, accent to recognize how precise her intonations are). When it comes time for Talero and Velez to play the Strauss siblings, aboard the St. Louis, their accents seamlessly change to German. This is a sign of good work by the estimable actor Tonya Beckman, who serves as dialect coach.
The production values are similarly fine. In particular, Tom Kamm’s excellent set effectively suggests both the apartment of a successful writer, overlooking Central Park, and the interior of an Ocean liner. Christopher Annas-Lee’s precision lighting is also worth noting.
The phrase sotto voce means “soft voice”, or in an undertone; as a musical term, it means “very softly”. Late in the play, for unknown reasons, Bernadette calls Saquiel “my sotto voce”. While the application of the phrase to the manipulative Saquiel is unclear, it has a much more apt application to the play as a whole. Cruz whispers his intentions too softly for the human ear to hear.
Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz, directed by José Carrasquillo, featuring Brigid Cleary, Andrés C. Talero, and Desiree Marie Velez. Scenic designer: Tom Kamm . Costume designer: Ivania Stack . Lighting designer: Christopher Annas-Lee . Sound designer: Brendon Vierra . Projection design: Paul Deziel . Props master: Kevin Laughon . Casting director: Jenna Duncan . Dialect and vocal coach: Tonya Beckman . Stage manager: Kate Kilbane, assisted by Jessica Soriano . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.