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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

No time like ‘Cocktail Time’

Published: March 19, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

In cooperation with New York’s Primary Stages, the Brandeis Theater Company last weekend presented the debut of playwright Rogelio Martinez’s “Cocktail Time in Cuba,” a play which juxtaposes one journalist’s identity crisis against the background of a Cuba potentially in upheaval.

In the hopes of reenergizing his lagging career, journalist Michael Thompson (Ben Rosenblatt) arrives in Cuba in 2006 determined to discover whether Fidel Castro is dead or alive. However, this self-imposed assignment quickly goes awry. His initial contact dies and gets replaced by “unemployed communist writer” Ruben (Equiano Mosieri), a man who alternately physically threatens Michael and promises to get him an interview with Castro. While he waits, he encounters Henry Little (Robert McFadyen), his former frat brother who has a mysterious interest in the country, and Marisela (McCaela Donovan), a Cuban stewardess whose family has vacillated between embracing and rejecting the communist government. Marisela soon falls for Michael despite what amounts to his midlife crisis.

As can be expected for any contemporary play set in Cuba, “Cocktail Time” certainly has its political concerns. On one hand, the play creates an aura of paranoia around the island’s government and the actions that it seemingly instigates. Virtually everyone Michael encounters appears to know some element of his actions to which they should not be privy; he’ll mention an anecdote to one character only to have another character mention it later on. This paranoia that the audience is made privy to occasionally becomes concrete, with one person telling him that he’ll “never leave” and the discovery of a wiretap in his phone.

Yet, for all this paranoia, the play also maintains a sense of humor about Cuba and its residents. It satirizes the way job creation functions in a command economy. One man (Johnnie L. McQuarley) is paid specifically to ensure that no one steals the glasses from a statue of John Lennon (Levi Rion Ben-Israel); when Michael points out how easy it would be to weld the glasses to the statue, Ruben remarks that no one “wants to lose a good government-created job.” But even in this there is an element of the paranoid. The statue of Lennon is played by an actor, meaning that, over the course of that particular scene, the scenery is literally watching Michael.

Overall, a feeling of political indifference prevails. Capitalism and communism appear almost interchangeable as ideologies in the eyes of the play. American and Cuban characters alike crave the opening of the island’s economy simply so that they can become filthy rich. Not even the Cuban characters care whether Castro is alive or dead—one jokes that he assumes Castro is dead because “Perez Hilton says he is” and doesn’t question this further. Communist Cuba may be “about to disappear,” but no one cares.

But the play concerns itself with far more than the political, as it increasingly chooses to probe the personal aspects of Michael’s life. His identity unravels throughout the play. When he first arrives, he pretends to be a happily married star reporter for “Vanity Fair.” Quickly, however, we discover that he’s a struggling freelance writer whose marriage is on the rocks , thus, he can’t help but get involved with Marisela. By the time Michael actually gets in contact with an old man (McQuarley in a second role) who claims to be Castro, it becomes something of an anticlimax. Michael seems almost dispassionate about the encounter. Even when he accuses Castro of being “limited,” it becomes clear that he’s talking more about himself than he is about Castro.

For all the elements of the play that worked—and a lot of them did—there were a few problems with its script. Though it initially tried to distort the passage of time, it did so to the point that it simply became confusing; there was no way to tell just how many months and years were passing from scene to scene. Though effectively disorienting, it also had the effect of making the characters’ growth less tangible for the audience, as characters sometimes developed relationships with one another almost exclusively off-stage.

The play’s acting company was uniformly good. Though Michael possesses a malleable identity, Ben Rosenblatt succeeded at creating an everyman bogged down by the pressure of his situation and surroundings. McCaela Donovan excelled at imbuing Marisela with a vibrancy that made it clear why Michael falls so hard for her; Donovan and Rosenblatt were perhaps at their best when exchanging barbs, as they both were able to display their comedic sensibilities. Robert McFadyen gave Henry just the right amount of sleaziness, allowing the audience to see behind his friendly façade while not overdoing it. As Ruben, Equiano Mosieri was intimidating while also possessing firm control over the character’s jocular crudities.

The play’s set was sparsely decorated and remained largely unchanged throughout the show’s two acts, with only a table, a few chairs and a bed—all swathed in shades of tan and grey—appearing on-stage This decision succeeded in capturing the paucity of luxuries that exist in Cuba, with only the occasional touristy martini bringing color to the place. In a way, its cramped quarters echoed a jail cell, a comparison reinforced by the jolting auditory transitions used between scenes which sounded like a combination of a jail cell closing and a power outage.

Though not perfect, “Cocktail Time in Cuba” proved to be a captivating play to watch unfurl. It wasn’t discernable that it was a work-in-progress—apparently changes were being made to its script throughout rehearsal and even between shows—and it’s much to the credit of the cast and crew involved that this never proved apparent during its performance.

If the play’s production were to be compared to one of its titular cocktails, it was only one or two ingredients away from achieving something remarkable. As the play stood, “cocktail time” was certainly enjoyable.