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Review: SOTTO VOCE at Theatre J

The current worldwide refugee crisis is the right time to recall the tragedy of the U.S.S. St. Louis, the German ocean liner that set sail in 1939 with 937 Jews seeking new homes. Cruelly denied entry to Cuba, the U.S. and Canada, the refugee ship had to turn back to Europe where hundreds of the once hopeful passengers subsequently perished in the Holocaust.

The shameful incident naturally led to its re-creation in drama - primarily in the 1976 film "Voyage of the Damed," based on the book of the same name.

Another dramatic work that has its root in the U.S.S. St. Louis is "Sotto Voce," a 2014 play by the Pulitzer Prize winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, which is starting the new season at Theater J, in a production directed by its associate artist of the year, José Carrasquillo.

Only set fleetingly on the boat, the play concerns a young Cuban student who in 2000 tries to look up a German woman who lost a loved one on the boat. Living now in New York City, she became a famous writer, but hadn't written in years until the persistent young student stirs up memories of her first love.

It's a weird angle to take, placing the grand scale horror of the refugee refusal way in the background to put the fate of one long-ago teen romance in the forefront. But as played by Brigid Cleary, the elder writer Bernadette Kahn, once worn down by the student's entreaties, is a lively and warm font of long-ago memories and regrets.

That she also starts to fall in love with the student and begins to conflate him with her long ago love is understandable. Since Andrés C. Talero plays both characters, quite naturally, they do look quite alike.

And as unseemly it may look to have a 20 year old and an 86 year old woman imagining themselves in a relationship, it certainly brightens her days. But it's not as if they ever meet face to face; instead she prefers to hear his voice over the apartment building call box or the telephone.

This makes for some odd staging, as they sit or stand close to one another, but look out into the beyond, as if to imagine they are in the presence of the other. It gets worse they start communicating through electronic text or email, with every line uttered followed by a spoken "Send!" as if to drive the message home (They don't say "Dial number" when calling one another).

As laudable as it might be to have the young student rekindle the author's interest in writing, it becomes clear that he has an ulterior motive. He wants to get his hands on her papers and mentions how valuable her discarded notes would be on the wider market.

He conspires with her housekeeper (Desiree Marie Velez) to such a degree that they too have a relationship. The dude is a bit of a cad, leading on both women to get what he wants. (And is he even from Cuba? His indistinct accent would certainly not place him there).

And once the housekeeper Lucila decides to show him some passages, there is no paper on the stage at all. Instead, they mime throwing the papers into the air, where they then read their lyrical passages.

This all may be part of the magical realism with which Carrasquillo is an expert (according to Theater J artistic director Adam Immerwahr). But the way it's presented, on a stage that otherwise has a Central Park apartment furnishings, rail and decor that is bland enough to double as a cruise ship, it just seems inconsistent.

Paul Deziel's projections help set the stage considerably, as it shifts from an overview of Central Park, to the shimmering vast waters, to what may be the shore of Havana.

Cleary is at the top of her talent, with a consistent German accent, and just the right musical tone for her lines. That she seems to be set up to believe that a new young man is a revival of one from her past ultimately seems like just another mean trick pulled on the elderly. That the whole story drifts, like the boat, far away from what is the original mass tragedy, is a trick on the audience.

Running time: One hour, 50 minutes, with one intermission.

Photo credit: Andrés C. Talero and Brigid Cleary in "Sotto Voce" at Theater J. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

"Sotto Voce" continues through Oct. 29 at Theatre J, at the Edlavitch DCJCC's Aron & Cecile Goldman theater, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington. For tickets go to 202-777-3210 or go online.

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From This Author - Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in and AARP the Magazine. He ha... (read more about this author)

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