BWW Review: EXQUISITA AGONÍA (EXQUISITE AGONY) at GALA Hispanic Theatre
When her husband suddenly dies in a traffic accident, an opera singer mourns, but also wants to get in touch with the organ recipient. Who received the heart of her husband, and did it carry with it more than just the tissue and muscle?
That's the central question in Nilo Cruz's "Exquisíta Agonia (Exquisite Agony)" at the GALA Hispanic Theatre: Can the spirit of the deceased man still be alive in the body of the new recipient?
The question consumes the passionate Millie Marcel (Luz Nicolás), who first has to first jump bureaucratic hoops to even reach the unknown recipient. And once she acquires the name of the young man Amér (Joel Hernández Lara) from a participating doctor (Ariel Texidó), she has to convince him to meet, through a series of letters.
But when there is a gathering finally of her family with Amér and his suspicious brother (José Antonio González), just about everything goes wrong.
Millie comes close to him just to hear his heart beating again; then her daughter Romy (Catherine Nunez) runs her finger down his scar, flirting, and suggests a tattoo. But more than anything, her angry brother Tommy (Andrés Talero) has a long rant about how the dead man wasn't worthy of being recalled so lovingly.
It's an intriguing tale of romance and mortality that plays well as Valentine's Day's own heart flourishes quickly approach.
What's more, the production at the GALA Hispanic Theatre by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Cruz is also directed by him, which wasn't the case when the work premiered in 2018 at New York's Repertoire Español.
We can assume, then, that this is fully the vision of the Cuban-American playwright, the first Latino to win the Pulitzer for Drama in 2003 for his play "Anna in the Tropics."
Its cast is substantial, full of familiar faces for GALA as well as international film and TV stars.
The brightest burning of them is Nicolás, who has been a standout in a number of works at the Columbia Heights theater, and also starred in the New York premiere. She brings a seething physicality to the role (though we never hear the singing voice of the opera star).
Lara is just right as Amér - grateful his new transplanted heart has given him a second chance, but wary of what it means to be connected to this whole new donor family. He's also curious about the changes that has come to him since he's had the new heart of the old conductor - a sudden interest in Mahler for example.
Nunez is playful as Romy, a tattoo artist who also has the presence of something other inside of her - an impending baby. Talero, like González' character, are full of the rage of young men. But Tommy's rant not only derails the dinner party, but also the play in some ways. The deep-seated hurt he feels from his upbringing sours any chance of resurrection of the passed soul.
Still, it's a compelling family drama that plays out on a set by Clifton Chadick that involves three raised platforms like a public square with a grate on top- out of which clouds of fog occasionally puff out. Above a chandelier is covered in cloth, perhaps a metaphor for the cloaking of human emotions below.
Throughout, most of the actors sit on stage in rows of chairs at least until the furniture is needed for the final gathering. A huge sliding door behind them lets actors enter, but to also allows the audience a glimpse of a huge poster of the dead man's face, staring down at the drama the search for his true heart has caused.
Cruz directs a broad physicality, with characters lolling around on the steps of the set, atop of chairs or running about.
The drama is performed entirely in Spanish with English supertitles, but if the Oscar wins of "Parasite" have taught us anything, it's that subtitles can be a bridge to whole new worlds of drama.
Running time: Two hours including one 10-minute intermission.
Photo credit: Liz Nicolás and Joel Hernández Lara in "Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony)." Photo by Stan Weinstein
"Equisíta Agonía (Exquisite Agony)" plays through March 1 at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St NW. Tickets at 202-234-7174 or online.