Rich with purpose and atmosphere, though comparatively thin on plot, Nilo Cruz’s engaging Exquisite Agony (★★★☆☆) tinkers and toys with challenging ideas that it doesn’t really take out of the box. Cruz’s drama establishes the intriguing premise of opera singer Millie Marcel (Luz Nicolas) fixating on finding the young cardiac patient now living with her late husband’s heart, but populates her story with a swirling cast of complicated characters who become embroiled in her obsession without doing much else.
Directing GALA Hispanic Theatre’s D.C. premiere of his work, Cruz, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Anna in the Tropics, conjures an alluringly operatic mood, abetted by a robust performance from Nicolas, who originated the role of Millie in the play’s Off-Broadway debut last year. She’s paired with Joel Hernández Lara, as Amér, the grateful recipient of the heart that once pumped blood through the veins of Millie’s late husband Lorenzo. Clinging to the memory of him, and insisting he had a “good heart,” she yearns to know Lorenzo’s new home, despite the objections of hers and Lorenzo’s adult children, Romy (Catherine Nunez) and Tommy (Andrés Talero). Romy laments that Millie continues to love Lorenzo better than he ever loved her, while Tommy rails against Millie’s “militant” refusal to let him go.
In the rising pitch of their emotions, Amér remains an object to be examined, as the play ponders the idea that we are more than the sum of our DNA, memories, and experiences. Meanwhile, Millie ponders Amér’s bare chest up close at every opportunity, as Amér confides in his brother Imanol (José Antonio González) that he might actually feel a metaphysical connection to the deceased Lorenzo. Countering these spiritual assessments, Doctor Castillo (Ariel Texidó), who performed the transplant operation, adds his clinical perspective on the matter, while also falling for Millie.
Conveying the doctor’s dawning infatuation, Texidó invests his man of science with winning warmth, humor, and openness. He allows us to see the good doctor moved to reconsider some of the notions he holds dear, and his command of the stage appears effortless, even when he’s just seated next to Nicolas. Their bubbly rapport threatens to overshadow Millie’s story with Amér, though Lara does make a strong impression in his role as the kind and sensitive young musician grateful for a second chance at life. Cruz emphasizes his vitality, sending Amér running laps around Clifton Chadick’s stylishly minimal set. For her part, Millie prowls and stretches about the stage with a feline vigor of her own. Often she seems like a woman too much alive, and with too much to live for, to be so hung up on a dead man.
Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) runs through March 1 at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Performances are in Spanish with English surtitles. Tickets are $20 to $55. Call 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.
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