February 5, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Improbable ‘Beauty’

In “Beauty of the Father” — Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz’s exploration of familial bonds — a young American woman travels to southern Spain to meet her estranged artist father. Things go OK until she falls in love (and in bed) with dad’s much younger boyfriend, and that’s where it gets a little tense. A Manhattan critic said the 2004 drama’s plot suggests “the crazy-quilt melodramas of early Almodóvar,” but the gay playwright doesn’t entirely agree.

Speaking via telephone from his home in New York City, Cruz explains, “It’s no more improbable than the love triangle in ‘The Graduate,’ and audiences didn’t find that plot so hard to grasp. Besides, the essence of ‘Beauty of the Father’ comes from real life. I wrote the play after spending some time in Naples, Italy, with friends — two men and a woman — who were living a similar experience.”

Cruz took some license with the story: He swapped the Naples locale for Andalusia and rather than Tunisian, the younger man in his piece is a Moroccan immigrant. And perhaps most importantly, he threw a father/daughter rivalry into the mix; but otherwise all the same emotions are there, and ultimately, Cruz says, “it’s about what comprises a family and the sacrifices involved in that.”

“Beauty of the Father” played off-Broadway in early 2006, and is currently making its Abel Lopez-directed D.C.-area premiere at Gala Hispanic Theatre through the end of the month. Typically, Gala produces classic and contemporary Spanish language works by Latin playwrights performed in Spanish with English surtitles, but they make exceptions and, in part, Cruz’s play is one of these.

While Cruz is Cuban-born (his family left Cuba for Miami in 1970 when he was 10), he writes primarily in English. For this production (titled “La belleza del padre” in Spanish), he also supplied the Spanish translation. Though fully bilingual, Cruz, who received an MFA from Brown University and has taught there as well, confesses to struggling in both languages.

“But I think it’s good for a writer to struggle,” he says. “To get to the essence of a thought and for the dialogue not to be entirely mundane, it takes work. Otherwise you might as well just go to the grocery store and listen to people talk.”

Prior to writing “Beauty of the Father,” Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2003 for his gorgeously written “Anna in the Tropics,” the story of a “lector” who is hired to read aloud to workers to in a Cuban-American cigar factory circa 1929, and what happens when the novel he selects (Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”) begins to change their lives. The Pulitzer changed Cruz’s life, too.

“It was euphoric,” he says. “After all, you write the play to share it with an audience and that’s what I was doing — everywhere it seemed. And to be the first Latino to win the Pulitzer for drama made the prize especially meaningful to me. I felt that I was opening the door for other Latino writers in this country.”

The Pulitzer judges approved of Cruz’s Latin sensibility, as well as his “magical realism that reads like a dream — with realism, which has its feet on the ground.”

His work is refulgent with ethnic and sexual diversity too. In addition to a same-sex couple, “Beauty of the Father” also includes the ghost of gay poet/playwright/martyr Federico Garcia Lorca, who haunts the title character’s home and studio.

“But it’s true; I do like to put gay characters in my work. I’m gay myself, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise.”

Beauty of the Father
Through Feb. 28
Gala Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, N.W.
$20 to $36
202-234-7174
www.galatheatre.org

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