In “Two Sisters and a Piano,” Jimmy Smits plays a lieutenant in the Cuban army in 1991 who is supposed to keep tabs on the two women (Daphne Rubin-Vega and Florencia Lozano) who are under house arrest for political activity, but instead he becomes infatuated with one of them.
Given the premise, and who’s in the cast, it should be no great surprise that there is a steamy scene about halfway through Nilo Cruz’s play. But what is a bit surprising is that, in the New Normal Rep’s online production, the steamy scene is watery: We see only a projection of gentle waves under a setting sun, rather than the kisses written in the script’s stage directions.
If this is a distracting moment, it is one of the few in this production, directed ably by the playwright, which largely makes the most of the Zoom platform. A pretend-kiss across Zoom boxes might have looked worse. Much of the time, the production does a reasonable job of convincing us the characters are sharing the living room of a large Havana house, even though the four cast members portraying them are not actually performing together. (Kudos must go as well to the “virtual technical director” Adriana Gaviria.)
Cruz is used to working around the limitations of the medium. He initially wrote “Two Sisters and a Piano” as a radio play, in 1996. It was inspired by the true story of a Cuban writer named Maria Elena Cruz Varela who with other artists called on Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro to embrace Perestroika, the Russian word for the restructuring and opening of Soviet society (a word that “Angels in America” fans already know.) As a result, she was imprisoned for two years, and then placed under house arrest.
Cruz expanded his play into a stage version, which had its New York premiere at the Public Theater in 2000, starring two of the current cast members – Rubin-Vega (fresh off her originating role in “Rent”) as younger sister Sofia, who is a pianist, and Gary Perez as Victor Manuel, piano tuner who is given permission by the authorities to visit their normally off-limits home and tune her piano.
Rubin-Vega is adept in expressing Sofia’s feelings of loss and longing, and touching in her effort to reach out to Victor Manuel, giving him her father’s shoes, because she doesn’t have enough money to pay for the repair, and wanting him to stay so that she has somebody with whom she can talk about music. (The score that we hear her playing through the play features Debussy, Gottschalk and Chopin, so we know her to be refine, sensitive, and romantic. )
Lozano portrays older sister Maria Celia, a writer who has written letter after letter to her exiled husband, and received no responses. Smits’ Lieutenant Portuondo first makes headway with her by revealing that the authorities have confiscated all his letters, but he can read part of them aloud to her, in exchange for her reciting some of her stories for him. It’s not only her stories that have him in her thrall, as we can see when he reads to her her husband’s words of love and longing as if they were his own.
For all the potential for torrid romance between the freedom-loving writer and the writer-loving soldier, the interaction between the sisters is the more nuanced and the most fun – such as when they dance together, or laugh under a cascade of leaves and butterflies.
It may be easier to get away with such scenes online than on stage, offering some evidence that at the moment, theater is, in a very different way, engaged in its own Perestroika.
Two Sisters and a Piano
New Normal Rep
Streaming April 21-May 23 2021
Running time: Two hours
Written and directed by Nilo Cruz
Virtual technical director Adriana Gaviria
Cast: Florencia Lozano, Gary Perez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits