Out of tune

Two River Theater presents Nilo Cruz’s Two Sisters and a Piano

3 minute read
Olazabal & Espinosa, seen in profile facing each other, look intimate & melancholy. She touches his chin with one finger.
Jason Manuel Olazábal and Eden Espinosa in ‘Two Sisters and a Piano’ by Nilo Cruz at Two River Theater in Red Bank. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)

Artistry and repression clash in Two Sisters and a Piano, now onstage at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. Playwright Nilo Cruz, who also directs, explores the struggle for freedom amid the oppression of a totalitarian regime in this poetic but stagnant melodrama.

Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Anna in the Tropics, debuted this play in 2000, setting it a decade earlier in Havana. Although Cuba has opened up to the world considerably since then—though not enough, according to many in the diaspora—the period depicted still finds the island closed to the liberal democracies of the West and hostile toward its citizens who question the wisdom of the government.

Suffocated lives

The fracture and eventual fall of the Soviet Union gives tantalizing hope to Maria Celia (Eden Espinosa), a novelist who endorses perestroika and longs to join her unseen husband, Antonio, in exile. But her intellectual pursuits land her under house arrest after a stint in prison, and her pianist sister Sofia (Helen Cespedes) also finds herself trapped by the yoke of Maria Celia’s ideals. Accused of bourgeois leanings, they find their world reduced to a few tiny rooms and a rooftop where Maria Celia retreats to compose letters and short stories.

Within this suffocating setting, Cruz constructs a romantic cat-and-mouse scenario, as Maria Celia awakens the passions of Lieutenant Portuondo (Jason Michael Olazábal), the apparatchik assigned to monitor the sisters. He professes admiration for Maria Celia’s writing and, secretly, support for the loosening of restrictions for the country’s artists. Sofia engages in a parallel flirtation with Victor Manuel (Hiram Delgado), a wiry young man who comes by their compound to tune her piano.

Lacking layers

Emotions may run high, but under Cruz’s stiff direction, the unfolding power struggle between Maria Celia and Lieutenant Portuondo remains tame. The audience should feel that every interaction between them carries layers of meaning; we should question what is genuine and what is merely transactional. But the dimensions of the plot reveal themselves here without much tension, and Espinosa and Olazábal generate little chemistry as antagonists or intimates.

Espinosa, an actor known primarily for her work in musical theater, lacks the gravitas to convince as a covert revolutionary. When she attempts to communicate the crushing reality of her stifled situation, she seems merely annoyed. She is not helped much by Cruz’s script, which is chock-full of dialogue that sounds flowery and arch, but a more formidable central performance could have helped move the evening along.

In a far less developed role, Cespedes finds a compelling center to Sofia’s sometimes childlike outbursts, grounding them in frustration for having to share the blame for her sister’s actions. Sofia relates to her piano more than other people, it often seems, and when Cespedes sits down to play, you feel you are witnessing a sense of true communion. And when she makes a rash and perhaps foolish decision to break free of her oppression, you cannot help but understand why she would take the risk.

A world of longing

Two River’s handsome production makes a few dramaturgical missteps. Paul Tate Depoo III’s well-appointed set lacks the claustrophobic dimensions needed to reinforce the sisters’ isolation, due in large part to the cavernous size of the stage in the Rechnitz Theater. Having Maria Celia’s secret balcony on the rooftop extend to the lip of the stage, in front of the house, also creates a feeling of airiness that plays against the reality of being trapped. The play would have worked better in the complex’s smaller Huber Theater. And although music plays a role in the drama, they would do well to excise Salomon Lerner's intrusive underscoring, which puts too fine a point on situations that are already pitched high.

The events of Two Sisters and a Piano exist in a world of longing, disappointment, and hope against the odds, but as seen here, the results are simply soap-opera mawkish. The play and the production are out of tune.

What, When, Where

Two Sisters and a Piano. Written and directed by Nilo Cruz. Through June 25, 2023, at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank. (732) 345-1400 or tworivertheater.org.


Two River Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Accessible parking is available onsite. There will be an audio-described and open-captioned performance of Two Sisters and a Piano on Saturday, June 24, at 3pm, and an ASL-interpreted performance on Sunday, June 25, at 3pm.

Masks are not required.

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