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Weekend Reviews | Theater Review

Magic Moments Light 'Two Sisters'

May 03, 1999|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

COSTA MESA — When two performers work together in ways transcending the usual definitions of stage rapport, the results can be quietly magical. So it is with Adriana Sevan and Jill Remez, playing off each other in the Nilo Cruz reverie "Two Sisters and a Piano," now at South Coast Repertory.

In every sense of the word, the performances are lovely. And a lot more than merely that.

You tend to come across this sort of rapport--emotional fearlessness, delicately shaded--more often with actresses than with actors. (Finest current cinematic example: Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier in "The Dreamlife of Angels.") Director Loretta Greco's sure-handed rendition of Cruz's fragrant, if overripe, play, set in Cuba in 1991, gets good work from all four performers, including Carlos Sanz (as a conflicted soldier of the revolution) and Javi Mulero (as a fastidious piano tuner). But Cruz keeps our focus on the sisters.

Maria Celia (Sevan), a politically unpopular writer banned in Cuba, lives under house arrest in her family home with her pianist sister, Sofia (Remez). Existence under confinement is getting to them, especially coming after a two-year jail sentence.

Maria's husband fled Cuba years ago, and has been trying to get the sisters out, though Maria hasn't received a letter from him in a mysteriously long time. Then comes Lt. Portuondo (Sanz), bearing a bundle of opened mail from Maria's husband.

He's more than just a censoring jackass; he's a nearly obsessive fan of Maria's short stories. He agrees to read Maria the absent husband's letters in exchange for Maria relaying to him an allegorical short story of hers, never completed. It's literary blackmail, but mutually beneficial, and heavy with sensual promise.

The play balances this unfolding relationship with Sofia's crush on the piano tuner (Mulero), whom Maria suspects may have been sent to spy on them. Playwright Cruz enjoys setting up a hothouse atmosphere--"Two Sisters and a Piano" is like a small-scale Cubano riff on Lorca's "House of Bernarda Alba"--and letting things happen. He's drawn to the sensual forces in our lives when, as a character says in "A Park in Our House," an earlier Cruz play, "the heart becomes a helium balloon."

"Two Sisters" doesn't fully succeed in marrying its sensual and political interests--on some level it's pretty hokey. (It's hard to buy Maria's granite defiance and open sneering toward a member of the Cuban military.) Yet Sevan, portraying the more contained and watchful of the sisters, works little miracles in this role, fending off her guardian's advances, smiling enigmatically, revealing little but revealing everything. It's perfectly scaled work for the smaller of South Coast Rep's theaters. Remez, too, delivers just what's needed, and comes through forcefully with one of Cruz's best passages: Sofia's monologue about all she has not experienced, while "saving myself for North America."

Director Greco's staging looks terrific, thanks to scenic designer Robert Brill's elegant, distressed-marble depiction of the family home's fading grandeur. The play itself is, finally, frustrating. It comes tantalizingly close in its sharpest scenes to distilling a world of issues, by way of two sisters (and a piano). Elsewhere, playwright Cruz simply piles on the lyricism, so that we float straight past the atmospheric and drift toward the suffocating.

Yet there's grace in his writing. I look forward to what Cruz does next. And watching Greco's ensemble, you get the impression four strong performers are slipping, as they say, into something more comfortable--gratefully.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Two Sisters and a Piano," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends May 30. $26-$43. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours.

Adriana Sevan: Maria Celia

Jill Remez: Sofia

Javi Mulero: Victor Manuel

Carlos Sanz: Lt. Portuondo

Written by Nilo Cruz. Directed by Loretta Greco. Scenic design by Robert Brill. Costumes by Alex Jaeger. Lighting by Geoff Korf. Sound by Rob Miller. Stage manager Randall K. Lum.

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