Carlos Lacámara has created that rare thing, an even-handed polemic, in this play about modern life in Havana. Along the way he skewers well-meaning Americans who consider Cuba their next "unspoiled" discovery. His play offers two faces of the Cuban condition: a party official, Raul (Lacámara), and an overly trained medico, Ariel (Mark Adair-Rios), who is reduced to cutting sugar cane for minor infractions against the state. Lacámara mediates their views through the persona of Michelle (Erin Fisk), a naïve international volunteer worker with hidden and subconscious agendas.
Playwright Lacámara notes that "debates about Cuba become exercises in ideological wish fulfillment." In Michelle we are presented with just such a person—someone who desperately seeks to belong, but with a sense of entitlement that comes with American citizenship. It is all the more frightening, then, to witness what happens when such a person relinquishes that entitlement. It lies submerged in the text, but this production also demonstrates how Third World economics is dominated by the American dollar even in the absence of Americans. The skill of Lacámara's playwriting—a series of tightly written snapshots intercut with Raul's narration and Michelle's confessionals—is ratcheted up by the superb ensemble. Director Bert Rosario sets a fast pace over the potential potholes that such monologues sometimes become. He provides just the right guidance, too, for the emotional high points belonging to Adair-Rios and for the emotional lows exhibited by Fisk. Lacámara imbues his character with understated fervor.
Patrick Rowe as Eddie, Ariel's buffoonish roommate, provides the comic relief for what might otherwise become an unrelentingly gritty view of Cuban existence and his own tragic disappearance. Jill Suzette Lanza gives a sardonic performance as Marta, whose practicality cuts through the smokescreen of rhetoric and lies floated for Michelle's benefit. As Michelle's re-orientation officer, Jossie Thacker uses her modulated, reasonable voice to makes the task of re-educating a privileged but emotionally impoverished young girl all the more chilling.
Becoming Cuban lingers in the mind long after viewing this tight production. Designer Kis Knekt has made the most of the tiny stage, using bullet-ridden pillars to symbolize Havana's crumbling elegance. Costumes—especially the uniforms—bring an oppressive sense of occupation to the fore. Lighting and sound augment the spare design. But the most significant aspect of the performance may be that it provokes the question, What should I think about Cuba?
"Becoming Cuban," presented by City Stage at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 6543 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Oct. 12-Nov. 16. $20. (323) 856-4200.