In 1939, Cuba’s Batista government, in collaboration with the government of the United States, delayed a ship called the SS St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish-German refugees, in the Havana harbor. Despite assurances that they would be granted asylum, the refugees were told that they could not enter Cuba without a visa. Twenty-two were eventually allowed to come ashore. The rest were sent back to Germany, where they were interned at Mechelen and put to death.
This shameful event in the history of American-Cuban relations provides the back-story for “Sotto Voce,” the new play written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, now running at Theater for the New City. The play follows a young Cuban-Jewish student, an aspiring writer named Saquiel Rafaeli (Andhy Mendez), who has come to New York City to track down the acclaimed German novelist Bemadette Kahn (Franca Sofia Barchiesi) after discovering that she was once the lover Ariel Strauss, one of the passengers on the SS St. Louis. After gradually earning her trust, and seducing her sassy but sentimental illegal immigrant housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (played by Arielle Jacobs, whose model good looks belie the play’s descriptions of her as plain and possibly overweight), he unlocks Bemadette’s repressed memories the war and the role her family played in Strauss’s death.
The emotional and moral weight of the play resides in Bemadetta’s shame, sorrow, and lost love. As her memories of Ariel Strauss seep into the carefully guarded calm she’s built around her life, the beasts of war she thought she’d escaped start to overwhelm her, and we in the audience begin to piece together the ways in which the blockade of the SS St. Louis forced tragedy, not only on its unfortunate passengers, but also on those who futilely loved them. Her masks crumble. Her identity reverts from that of a Manhattan sophisticate, an exalted author in her tower, to that of a fragile and sorrowful survivor who, though not a Jew herself, was as much a victim of the Holocaust as her Jewish lover.
Franca Sofia Barchiesi evokes both sides of Bemadette with equal skill. When she imagines the girl Bemadette used to be with Strauss (the girl she could have continued to be, if Strauss had lived), tentatively flirtatious, shy with her joy, she does so with a heartbreaking delicacy. When the dark truth of Strauss’s death overtakes her and she finds herself at odds with her society, identifying not with the new Germany of which she’s a member but with the persecuted Jewish people, because, as she says, “I carry within me the memory of a Jew… a Jew who was my beloved. So I too have become a Jew,” there’s a touch of Latin melodrama, yes, but Barchiesi’s body and her aching voice convince us that her pain is real.
But though the heart of the story may reside with her, the play doesn’t really belong to Bemadette. The narrative is structured around Saquiel, who begs and harasses and seduces her into re-experiencing her memories. The play isn’t really about Bemadette’s past. It’s about Saquiel’s present. He is the character who wants things and makes choices that lead to dramatic action. And Saquiel is a cypher, a plot device. We’re meant to believe that he has such a crucial need to uncover — or “recover” as the play would have it — the details of Strauss and Bemadette’s tragic love that he becomes Strauss and falls in love with this elderly woman (consummating the affair with her proxy Lucila) but we’re never given an compelling or characterological reason why this might be true.
Cruz builds multiple parallels between Saquiel’s situation and that of Ariel Strauss. His relationship with Bemadette is built almost entirely on letters — emails they send each other in lieu of actually meeting — an echo of the letters she and Strauss sent to each other. After overstaying his visa, Saquiel is forced to return to Cuba. He promises to return to his twin loves, Bemadette and Lucila, but like the passengers on the SS St. Louis, he’s denied this happy ending by both the Cuban and American governments. And of course, there’s their shared Judaism.
But except for the coincidence of their both being Jewish, he and Ariel Strauss have no real connection, so despite his claims to the contrary, his pursuit of Bemadette contains no urgent need. His obsession with Benadette feels less real than convenient. Worse, his situation — no matter how destructive and unfair the current U.S. and Cuban policies toward each other are — is not in any way equivalent to Strauss’s, for he will go on living where Strauss was condemned to die. Equating the Cuban experience under Castro with the Holocaust is a stretch and it puts a strain on Sotto Voce that the play can’t possibly endure.
One walks away wishing that Cruz had fully embraced the story of Bemadette and Strauss’s doomed love, rather than drowning it in the Florida Straits.