Crystal Field and Juan Javier Cardenas get back to reality in Havana Journal. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A interesting look at Cuba and its relationship with America; not the most enthralling play of all time, but serves a purpose to inform and evoke discussion.
Ruth is anything but complacent. An aging Columbia University fiction writing professor, she has disdain for her over-privileged students and a burning desire for a more passionate life. She is delightfully batty, making both her penchant for alcohol and anti-establishment behavior quite endearing. Played by Crystal Field, this central character of Havana Journal, 2004 takes the audience on her journey from the Upper West Side to Cuba and back again.
Eduardo Machado’s new play is packed with import regarding American-Cuban conflict and the effects of living in a tightly-ruled communist country. Machado shows Havana from the inside out, carefully exposing the intricacies of life and the hardships that accompany the nationality. Ruth is a woman on the verge – she is desperate to learn more about Cuba and to discover a deeper meaning in herself. Just because she’s American doesn’t mean she’s pro-capitalism, after all. Throughout the play, she travels to Havana to meet with a composer, Reynaldo (Juan Javier Cardenas), to hand off some money for him to use for his orchestra. She then encounters Tom, a conservative American with a sketchy agenda (Liam Torres) at a local bar. Tom has just met with Reynaldo, pursuing undefined yet definitely illegal motives for what is assumed to be his personal gain. Last, Ruth returns to New York and has a critical conversation with the office janitor Ivan (David Skeist) about his own experiences growing up in oppressive Chechnya. By the end of the play she has satisfied a rebellious urge, but I’m not sure she’s any better off – if anything she’s more disillusioned with the state of both nations.
Havana Journal succeeds in exposing its subject. By using Ruth’s experiences, the plot resonates on a more intricate level as the audience internalizes her expectations before her journey with the realities she sees post-trip. She is sort of a neutral character, wanting to learn more about both sides and not really sure where she stands, although she seeks to gain insight.
As a production, the show is somewhat preachy. The set is entirely red (stage, furniture, lights) as if to hammer home the communist implications that are already on the surface of the plot. The actors who are not in a scene are usually sitting off to the sides of the stage, maybe signifying looming conflict? I’m not really sure why this convention is used, perhaps it just felt right for the minimalist design aesthetic, as if the entire production is a symbol of its much deeper (and real-life) meaning. The supporting characters are, at times, unclear. It’s never really expounded upon why Ruth has the money to be delivered to Reynoldo and Tom’s motives are never explained in any detail. The supporting characters seem superfluous yet hugely important to Ruth’s experience, adding confusion that could be easily remedied with a little more character development.
If Cuban politics or America’s relationship with Cuba interests you, this play offers much insight and food for thought. Additionally, it reaffirms the idea that political complacency isn’t the only option, a concept lost on the blasé attitude of the past few decades. It also reminds that being anti-capitalism doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-American. Machado was born in Cuba and grew up in America, so if anyone is qualified to discuss the subject it’s him.
(Havana Journal, 2004 plays at Theater for the New City, 155 1st Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, through April 18th. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $15 and are available at theaterforthenewcity.net or by calling 212.254.1109.)