In Sotto Voce, Theater J’s first production of the 2017-18 season, the characters don’t actually lower their voices.
Instead, they speak in whispers, and not always to each other. However, they do address the audience, which is privy to their innermost thoughts as well as their comic banter.
Most of the talk takes place in the year 2000, inside an elegant apartment overlooking Central Park in Mid-Manhattan.
The actors — Brigid Cleary, Andrés C. Talero, and Desiree Marie Velez — play a variety of roles, connecting with each other on multiple levels. These are real and imaginary, past and present. There are several romances. And yes, there is a triangle here, with two women vying, in different ways, for the same seductive man.
The first liaison, which bears the weight of the story, is between the central character, an 80-year-old German-born novelist, and a brash student, who happens to be Cuban, and who is trying to make a splash at a reunion of Holocaust survivors.
The writer, played with consummate grace and humor by Brigid Cleary, is transformed, in the course of the play, from a crotchety recluse wrapped in rags to the radiance of a young woman in love. Her costumes, designed by Ivania Stack, spell out the transformation.
Andrés C. Talero is the charming interloper who shakes things up. He hopes to cash in on the old woman’s secret — the fact that her lover was one of the passengers on the SS St. Louis in 1939 — and thus achieve fame, fortune and a permanent visa. (The ship, which was carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler’s Europe, was turned away by both Cuba and the US.)
Thanks to e-mail and voicemail, the two connect. They sail — spiritually, at least — through fantasy flights that have the gauzy feel of an old Woody Allen movie.
Desiree Velez occupies the third side of the triangle. She fills the role of the housekeeper — an illegal immigrant from Colombia — with a combination of bravado and loss.
Velez truly embodies the plight of the refugee. In some of the play’s most poetic lines, she yearns for the home she will never see again. She also points out that the furniture, which may appear beautiful to a visitor, is not so beautiful when you have to clean it.
Tom Kamm has designed a set that is suitably sotto voce — and the ultimate in high rise class. The spare lines of an 18th century writing table strike a perfect balance with a 21st century chair and a 1920s sunken living room floor.
Dominating the set is a giant screen on which some of the most evocative images are shown. The images are both literal— depicting the view from the picture window in the apartment and from the deck of the ship at sea — and abstract.
Together, Paul Deziel and Christopher Annas-Lee, the projection and lighting designers, have created a magical world of color and light, alternating between the park below, the sky above, the rolling waves and the glitter of Times Square. Brendon Vierra provides the sound.
José Carrasquillo is the director who pulls all the characters — real and imagined — together. Like a conductor, he brings life to what might otherwise be a static production.
Sotto Voce is what Tennessee Williams called a “memory play.” It’s about an old woman’s memories of her first love — set on the eve of the Nazis’ domination of Europe — and her dreams of what might have been had the young man been able to escape.
There are some wonderful moments in this play, especially in the interaction between the writer and the maid. Unfortunately, the script as a whole is not as good as its parts. The character of the Cuban student is particularly weak.
The playwright, Nilo Cruz, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his play Anna in the Tropics. A Cuban exile himself — albeit one who arrived in 1970, with his parents — he is capable of great flights of lyricism, but the plot, in this tale, is too disjointed to make sense.
Theater J’s production of Sotto Voce is entertaining to watch. And it’s a good reminder — as Adam Immerwahr, Theater J’s Artistic Director, points out — that the free world is once again in danger of shutting its doors on those who, without its protection, are doomed.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.
Sotto Voce plays through October 29, 2017, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.