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The lyrical language of Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer Prize–winning play brings with it the feeling of wild, windswept hillsides or churning ocean waves breaking madly on the beach; it is altogether beautiful, powerful, and breathtaking. More's the pity, then, that the Los Angeles premiere stumbles and falls hard in making this poetic writing sing as it should by wrapping it up in garish melodrama.

Director Richard Hamburger takes the passion of Cruz's work and elevates it to an unflattering level. Peter Maradudin's stark lighting accents the director's tendency toward exaggeration of both emotion and action, which ultimately reduces critical scenes to near buffoonery. We are left with virtually no room for caring or connecting to anyone involved in this tale of a lector come to read to workers in a family-run cigar factory in 1929 Florida, not long before the economic ruin of the Great Depression and the advent of automation helped bring about an end to this decades-long tradition.

When suave, handsome Juan Julian (Al Espinosa) chooses to read Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's epic tale of morality and social responsibility becomes a reflective backdrop for various troubled relationships within the family—particularly between the unfaithful Palomo (Timothy Paul Perez) and his unhappy wife, Conchita (Jacqueline Duprey), with whom Juan Julian becomes romantically involved. Perez and Duprey are obviously capable actors, but they are often saddled by Hamburger's overblown approach. The same can be said for Adriana Gaviria as Conchita's younger sister, as well as for Javi Mulero, as the oily Cheché, who loses his character's sinister undertones because of Hamburger's preference for smothering subtlety and organic emotion with soap opera.

Fortunately, Apollo Dukakis and Karmín Murcelo as parents are not as heavily burdened, the delightful Dukakis, especially, providing much of the comic relief. Christopher Barreca's evocative run-down cigar factory set and Fitz Patton's Latin-flavored underscoring are also pleasing highlights in a production that is otherwise mostly full of hot air.

"Anna in the Tropics," presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 5 & 9 pm, Sun. 2 & 7 pm. Jan. 11-Feb. 13. $36-51. (626) 356-7529.

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