Monday, November 18, 2013

144. Review of STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE (November 14, 2013)



Turning a film into a play can be a daunting experience, one made even more challenging today when it’s so easy to make comparisons by simply renting the film on Netflix or downloading it (or parts) of it on your computer. Adaptations into straight plays are even more difficult because most movies are unconfined by time and space whereas the stage presents technical difficulties that often require paring the film down to accommodate the theatre’s limitations. That’s one reason why theatre adapters often choose to convert films into musicals, where the conventions are more readily exploded and time and space can be more freely exploited. The complications pile up even more when the film from which a play is being adapted was itself derived from another source, such as a novel or story. In recent weeks the New York stage has seen such examples as A TIME TO KILL, a drama adapted from a film adapted from a novel; BIG FISH, a musical adapted from a film adapted from a novel; and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, a musical adapted from a film. Coming soon is a musical version of Woody Allen’s movie BULLETS TO BROADWAY. The latest example of this cross-fertilization is STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE by Cuban playwright Senel Paz, translated from the Spanish by Eugene Nuñez, based on the movie 1993 FRESA Y CHOCOLATE, for which Mr. Paz had written the screenplay; that screenplay is based on his short story, “The Wolf, The Forest and the New Man.”

Roy Arias and AJ Cedeño. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            Directed by Roger Robinson, STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE is being shown at a small, second-floor theatre called 777 Eighth Avenue, right next door to the New York Sightseeing bus building near 47th Street. The play is certainly true to the original story, one that was good enough to land the film the 1994 Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, among other important honors. Its title is a metaphor for the friendship between (as played here) a stereotypically flamboyant, 40ish gay man, the opera and art-loving Diego (Roy Arias), and the much younger university student and would-be writer David (AJ Cedeño). It takes place in early 1980s Havana, and David is a committed revolutionary in Castro’s Cuba, while Diego, despite his claims of patriotism over sexuality, is considered a counterrevolutionary because of the country’s homophobic ideology. When Diego tries to pick up David at an ice cream parlor, he orders strawberry ice cream, a sign of his difference in a world where most people, like David, prefer chocolate.

            David is lured to Diego’s apartment by Diego’s claim to have photos of him as Torvald in a university production of A DOLL’S HOUSE, but this is merely a ruse so that Diego can seduce the handsome young man. David soon realizes what’s going on and, as he and Diego begin to get to know each other as friends, David betrays his new acquaintance to his fiery revolutionary friend, Miguel (Andhy Mendez), who recruits David to spy on Diego’s activities. As David and Diego’s friendship deepens, and their political positions come more clearly into play, the dramatic situation grows tenser. Diego’s principal objection to Cuba’s politics is its oppression of homosexuals; for David, regardless of his own orientation, even to walk down the street with Diego would itself be considered a subversive act. Finally, following an act of brutality involving the hateful Miguel (it’s hard to avoid the word climactic here), Diego, incapable of living in a nation so aggressively antigay (there are dozens of "faggots" sprinkled through the dialogue), and fearful of loneliness and old age, must make a life-changing decision.

Roy Arias, AJ Cedeño, and Andhy Mendez. Photo: Carol Rosseg.

            This potentially strong material, with its depiction of a revolutionary society where the question of whether gays and straights can be friends is practically one of life and death and where being gay makes you a counterrevolutionary traitor, remains largely unrealized in Paz’s often static adaptation. Unable to dramatize the internal thought processes of his two main characters, he inserts lengthy soliloquies in which they speak to themselves and to the audience; at one point, David even debates both sides of an issue with himself. Perhaps if the actors were more skilled or Mr. Robinson’s direction less feeble, this might have worked, but as shown here it signals the inability of the dramatist to fully transition his story from screen to stage. Despite its emotional and political premises, the drama comes off as lumpy and uneven. Still, even with numerous problems in its presentation, the situation increasingly holds your attention; one part of your brain notices the weaknesses in the shallow performances and clumsy staging, while the other becomes involved in the play’s dilemma and its resolution.

            The set, by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., attempts to encompass multiple locales by filling the stage with what seems the shabby living room of an old Havana apartment, with a doorway entrance at stage right, an upstage right wall of books and a few objets d’art (including a Virgin Mary with votive candles), and a stage left area that serves as both an extension of the living room and for outdoor scenes when the upstage louver doors open to reveal the Copellia ice cream parlor. For scenes in Miguel’s apartment, a wall with a bed attached is thrust through the same louvers. Spanish-language political graffiti covers the downstage walls at either side. While the ambiance of moldy walls with faded paint suggests the atmosphere of crumbling old Havana, it never fully captures the artistic tastes of Diego, whose apartment in the movie (comparisons are inevitable, I’m afraid) is far more charmingly appointed. Thurston Reyes’s lighting does a lovely job of illuminating this drab interior/exterior environment.

            Although the cast is composed entirely of Hispanic actors, there's no consistency in the ethnic qualities they bring to Mr. Paz’s world. Cubans come in many colors so, judging only by their accents, Mr. Arias’s Diego sounds decidedly Hispanic, Mr. Mendez’s accent goes in and out, and Mr. Cedeño sounds like he could come from Anytown, USA; he simply seems out of place as a Cuban revolutionary. Mr. Robinson’s staging needs greater attention to pacing, energy, and give and take, especially in the early scenes. My theatre companion, a veteran stage actress and acting teacher, thought the problem might have been insufficient rehearsal.

STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE may sound delicious, but it turned out to be a dish I couldn't quite swallow.