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At Sea

The Mobtown Players Cling to a Meandering Script in A Bicycle Country

ENGULFED: From Left, Manolo Santalla, Wendy Nogales, and Noah Stanzione are stranded together in A Bicycle Country.

By John Barry | Posted 4/6/2005

Not many playwrights would be willing to take the chances Nilo Cruz does in A Bicycle Country. After you watch the play, it’s pretty clear why. When a play starts out with the central character recovering from a stroke in a wheelchair, and ends with the entire cast floating aimlessly on a raft, one assumes that somewhere along the way the writer is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Cruz doesn’t have a rabbit to begin with.

Cruz’s three characters—the older Julio (Manolo Santalla), the younger Pepe (Noah Stanzione), and Julio’s young nurse Ines (Wendy Nogales)—are driven by one ambition: getting on a raft and paddling toward paradise, i.e., Key West. It’s in the early ’90s, Cuba is full of desperate people risking their lives to make it to the sands of Florida, and the U.S. coast is patrolled by Americans trying to stop them. Whether Florida is actually the Promised Land under those circumstances, Cruz leaves that question for another time and place. But for the moment, these characters earnestly spend the entire time with their eyes on the prize.

Cruz’s writing has its flowery moments, and the play’s central claustrophobia is hammered home with lines that don’t say a whole lot that we don’t know already: “Why can’t I leave this place?” Or, “What’s the use of staying in this place? . . . My question exactly!” Monologues, meanwhile, seem to have been created to give vent to Cruz’s musings about nature and life.

More troubling, the plot is cut awkwardly in two. The first half, which should offer some comfort to stroke victims, takes Julio from a state of total paralysis to complete recovery within about 45 minutes. That offers him the opportunity to get Ines and Pepe a raft and realize his dream of crossing to Florida. It also gives Cruz the chance to place all the characters on the raft throughout the entire second act. That violates what should be a rule for any theater the size of Mobtown’s: The stage is small enough—don’t make it any smaller.

What follows is a mix of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. The characters find themselves caught in the wrong current, floating directionless. Since they can’t hear any American music on the radio, they know they’re out of range. As the sun beats down on them, they’re forced to come to terms with a decision to bring only a single bladder of water. Pepe puts it best: “We’re fucked!”

They are, in fact, fucked. The sun beats down, there’s water water everywhere; the plot line thereafter is a slow descent into raving and hallucination. The closest we really get to a rabbit pulled out of a hat occurs when Julio unzips his fly to relieve himself. Later, as Pepe sleeps, Julio and Ines decide to do their thing; given that Julio is a senior citizen, just recovered from a stroke, and dying of thirst in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a credit to Cuban manhood. One more rule for small theaters: If you’re going to have sex onstage, go all the way.

The actors deserve credit for giving it their all, but they have been left literally floating. As the older, crippled Julio, Manolo Santalla has a curmudgeonly dignity. Wendy Nogales’ Ines is bursting with energy, but her amorous exuberance seems to be directed entirely toward the coast of Florida. Noah Stanzione plays Pepe as a likable, rum-swilling third wheel. It’s usually a bad sign if, when all is said and done, the actors seem most comfortable when their characters’ brains are being deep-fried after a week of floating in the Caribbean.

In the dramaturge's notes, Cruz cites Magritte as one of his influences: Magritte turned the world upside down, but Cruz is so humorless about his own vision that he has to use warmed-over surrealism to give the play some flavor. And there you have it, fourth-generation modernism: They tell you they’re bending the rules, then you wonder whether they knew what the rules were to begin with.

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