First class drama comes to McCarter Theater

“Anna in the Tropics,” a new play by Nilo Cruz that recently won the Pulitzer Prize, opened at the new Berlind Theater in Princeton.

Cruz’s play tells the story of a Cuban-American cigar factory in the early 20th century. Family, love, literature and betrayal collide in this beautifully lyric explosion of passion and sensitivity.

Juan Jualian (Jimmy Smits) is a lector – someone paid by the factory workers to read to them while they work. Jualian reads Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which incites hidden yearnings in the turbulent souls of the workers.

Cruz’s writing is accessible, humorous and seductive. The actors of this ensemble play are constantly brining subtle subtext to the surface through nonverbal acting and their sharp skills.

The sincerity of Cruz’s writing is apparent in many scenes throughout the play, especially when Santiago, a gambler-drinker and owner of the factory, talks with his wife about Tolstoy’s novel. He describes how he relates to the character of a young, driven man who only loves one woman. It’s Cruz’s juxtaposition with Tolstoy’s novel that makes the tragedy and the comedy of these characters much more poignant when cast in relief to their counterparts.

Cruz’s characters speak with a childlike wisdom. Marlena, the youngest female character in the play, says, “Everything in life dreams. A bicycle dreams of becoming a boy, an umbrella dreams of becoming the rain, a pearl dreams of becoming a woman and a chair dreams of becoming a gazelle and running back to the forest.” This simple, yet magical imagery gives the play its most human and touching aspect – and it was this kind of writing that earned the Pulitzer Prize.

The set is brilliantly simple and all-purpose, consisting of a large back wall, several chairs, two tables and a washtub – space is carefully used, never to excess. Director Emily Mann’s choice of set, movement and blocking comes across as stylish and inevitable.

The play is sold out for the rest of its run at the Berlind, but will move to Broadway in November.

The Berlind is a new stage that just opened as part of McCarter Theater. A 350-seat space with a standing room section located in the back, the theater also contains two rehearsal halls and classrooms for Princeton University’s dance and theater programs. The construction of the theater was a joint effort between McCarter Theater and Princeton University.

Later in the year, the Berlind Theater will host performances of “Fraulein Else” and “My Fair Lady.” McCarter Theater will feature songwriter Randy Newman, neo-folk singer Dar Williams, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, jazz legends the George Shearing Quintet and the Herbie Hancock Quartet, Drummers of West Africa and the annual Richard Thompson Fall concert. More information is available at