For the workers rolling maduros in a small, sultry Tampa cigar factory, having the snow-bound romance of "Anna Karenina" read aloud to them by a suave young man in a white suit "is like having a fan or an icebox by your side to relieve the heat," as one character in Nilo Cruz's "Anna in the Tropics" puts it.
Cruz's lusty, lyrical, yet oddly courtly play has precisely the reverse effect, warming up this chilly January with an archetypal tale straight out of noir, or William Inge: A handsome stranger arrives and stirs complacent lives, and loins, that are fairly starved for a shakeup.
In Richard Hamburger's robust, silkily assured production, which originated at Dallas Theater Center and opened this week at the Pasadena Playhouse, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning play simmers and sings in sharp, clear tones. Hamburger homes in on the play's fraught intimacy, in which every exchange swelters with insinuation and consequence. If the play's larger context seems hazier, this is not entirely a directorial oversight; Cruz, after all, has written a self-contained chamber piece, not an immigrant-experience epic.
The play's central premise is too precious not to be true: Juan Julian (Al Espinosa) is the factory's new "lector," employed to read novels aloud to the workers, an authentic Cuban-originated tradition that survived in U.S. cigar factories until automation essentially extinguished the old ways in the 1930s.
In the halcyon days of the 1920s in which "Anna" is set, though, Tampa Bay's Ybor City offers the closest cigar to the Cuban original, and the arrival of a new lector is still a big deal -- particularly to the factory's women, matriarch Ofelia (Karmin Murcelo) and her daughters, Conchita (stunningly strong Jacqueline Duprey) and Marela (bubbly Adriana Gaviria), who thrive as "listeners" to romantic literature the way some swear by their "stories" today.
The lector is a big deal to the men too, for roughly the opposite reason: The bitter Cheche (tetchy, sympathetic Javi Mulero), who wants to modernize the place with machines, has no use for this literary soundtrack. Conchita's swaggering husband Palomo (restless Timothy Paul Perez) is indifferent until he sees the effect the lector has on his unsatisfied wife.
The seductions and skirmishes that follow have a lilting, poetic rhythm rather than a naturalistic one, and they build to a classical denouement, not a bare-all emotional blowout.
Maybe that's why this "Anna" sparks most brightly in dialogues of two characters, or three at most, in which characters speak their hearts in raw, richly metaphorical language: Conchita wants to shout her true feelings to Palomo in the "crude and ancient" bleat of a "person who's deaf"; weary patriarch Santiago (a touchingly petulant Apollo Dukakis) sees his "pride and self-respect" being carried away like "bread crumbs" on the backs of a "line of little ants"; Juan Julian, naturally the most fluent in this kind of talk, asks Conchita, with the straight face only a practiced seducer could muster, "So is there a story in your hair?"
Some group scenes aren't as convincing. A second-act launch party for the factory's newest cigar -- named, of course, the Anna Karenina -- features a (literally) pungent reverie, as each cast member samples the new product in turn, giving witty character thumbnails in the process (Gaviria's game, choking attempt to enjoy a puff is priceless).
But the scene dissipates into generic jollity and pseudo-drunken square-offs; there's a sense that all of the play's strands of desire and discord are meant to come together here with a twist and a snap. Instead they splay and crisscross, sometimes confoundingly: I couldn't tell, for instance, if Perez's sputtering Palomo was acting out of jealousy of the lector or, interestingly, of his wife.
Hamburger uses Christopher Barreca's raked, elemental set -- hung with spectral tobacco leaves and dominated by a versatile rotating work table -- to transform the play's single setting in often startling ways, abetted by Peter Maradudin's lights. Miguel Angel Huidor's crisp white or beige costumes take on color only as the characters warm up.
That is, all except the nattily dressed Juan Julian, who stays in angelic white throughout and who, in Espinosa's supple performance, stands as the sort of idealized bard who may exist only in books and plays -- and as such is as good a reminder as any of why we keep such indispensably inspiring companions around.
'Anna in the Tropics'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 13
Price: $36 to $51
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes