A few weeks ago, an article about a heartbroken young man went viral. The Mirror reported that Luke Howard of Bristol, United Kingdom, vowed to play piano in public for 24 straight hours to show his "lost love" (a woman he'd dated for four months) how much he cared.
The social media clapback was immediate and harsh. Sure, women do weird shit like this too, but popular culture has so fetishized the dreamy yet disconsolate stud (Dustin Hoffman screaming "Elaine!"; John Cusack with his boombox) that some dudes think it's okay to make already-uncomfortable women even more so by loudly professing undying infatuation after she has clearly said "no." Howard was quickly called entitled and creepy. His critics weren't wrong.
This brand of "romantic" behavior is rampant in Sotto Voce, up now at Teatro Paraguas; it left us so bothered by multiple characters' blatant senses of entitlement that new frustrations bubbled up for days. It is a testament to Paraguas' competency that audiences are left more focused on the larger themes at play than they are with the production's nuts and bolts.
Sotto Voce, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, is the story of Saquiel, a young Cuban writer (John H Reiser), an octogenarian German-born novelist named Bemadette (Francesca Shrady) and Bemadette's Colombian housekeeper Lucila (Juliet Salazar). Saquiel has come to New York City to track down Bemadette while researching his family history. In 1939, Saquiel's great-aunt boarded a boat from Germany to Cuba as a Jewish refugee. The boat was turned away in Havana, forced to bring its passengers back to Germany, and all but a couple dozen of the 900-plus refugees ended up in concentration camps. Many of them died in the camps. (This is xenophobes' cue to shift uncomfortably.) Saquiel's great-aunt was one of the doomed passengers; so was Bemadette's first love, Ariel.
At the time of the play, it is 61 years since the ship's voyage, and Saquiel is researching it to present at a conference. He learns of Bemadette and shows up at her doorstep to try to get her to talk about Ariel. He calls her from his cell phone from the sidewalk, gazing up at her window wistfully. She tells him to leave her alone.
Of course, he doesn't. He'd might as well have a boombox.
Soon the line is blurred between Saquiel's desire for information about the ship, his desire to read Bemadette's private writing, and his desire for Bemadette herself … or, as we soon see, his desire for Lucila, too, once he meets her. It certainly helps that Saquiel is "a peach" and that he has "the hands of a poet," as Lucila says breathlessly. If he were some kind of bridge troll, you can bet the cops would have been called immediately. But he's pretty. He's weird, sure, but … maybe let him in.
Reiser's proto-Cuban accent jumped around the board a little bit from pan-Latin to hints of his haunting Ernst Ludwig from the Playhouse's Cabaret back in July. Forgiving that, we started to view him more as simply an oddly inflected generic creeper, and that made the vocal oddities easier to ignore. (Think the breathiness of that weird teenage kid from American Beauty mixed with a little Hannibal Lecter gentility.) Opposite the nymph-like Shrady as Bemadette, his commanding presence—even though they never actually meet—makes it easy to understand why Bemadette would soon start to wait for his phone calls, and why Lucila would do anything to get closer to him.
Speaking of whom, we continuously root for Salazar's Lucila. First introduced as the archetypical "bawdy chambermaid," she doesn't waste any time becoming far more than that. She is Bemadette's confidante and friend—perhaps her only one, as the elder woman is agoraphobic—but emerges as thoughtful and independent as she attends a salsa class with Saquiel, soon folding to his charms.
In a predictable but no less head-shaking advancement, Saquiel uses his proximity to Lucila to beg her for access to Bemadette's papers. We don't feel the need to call out to Lucila to run, though; we get the feeling she is hip to Saquiel's manipulative tricks. She is smart enough to know what he's doing, and he is self-absorbed enough to think she'll cave entirely. Salazar is nimble in the role, and her chemistry with both of her co-stars is both comfortable and complex. Lucila stays non-despicable throughout (I would expound on Bemadette's shortcomings, but I have a word limit), and we love her for it.
We would be remiss not to nod to Cheryl Odom's costume coordination. Bemadette, in a casual dress, laced loafers and slouched socks, is just as at home in 1941 as she is in 2000; Saquiel in breezy linen looks just off the plane from Cuba; Lucila cinches a shapeless frock with a wide belt only when she sees Saquiel—they are all wearing curated costumes without appearing costumed. Skip Rapoport's lighting aids in the interpretation of a script that often switches between time periods and soliloquy, and we had no problem rolling with the changes.
A play that begins in cerebral, too-heady wordiness and ends with visceral reactions to pseudo-romance and entitlement, Sotto Voce left us unnerved—yet proud of its actors for confronting privilege at its slimiest.
7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday Oct. 5-14; 2 pm Sundays Oct. 8 and 15. $12-$25. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601.