There's a little too much García Lorca in Nilo Cruz's half-baked new play "Beauty of the Father" - literally. Cruz, the Cuban-American playwright who nabbed a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his lyrical "Anna in the Tropics," actually has placed García Lorca's ghost into his new play to act as a sort of muse and narrator.
As played by the charming Oscar Isaac, this García Lorca appears much as we might picture the famous poet and dramatist of the Spanish Civil War: immaculate cream-colored suit, elegant cigarette, well-turned phrases. But, when pressed, he can't explain what he's doing in present-day Granada, Spain, except to flirt with a muddle-headed, middle-aged expatriate American painter, Emiliano (Ritchie Coster), who's in the midst of a midlife crisis.
Interjecting the Spanish martyr into the play's otherwise pedestrian narrative comes off as desperation, not inspiration. It betrays an odd insecurity, as if in departing from his familiar Cuban or Cuban-American milieu to visit the cradle of the Spanish tongue, Cruz feels he must sample a cultural "greatest hits" list, from flamenco to Francisco Franco, from Salvador Dalí to Al Andaluz. Director Michael Greif adds paella and castanets to the mix.
It's Spain according to Frommer, and as a travel destination, it looks gorgeous. We can practically taste the Mediterranean air around Mark Wendland's platform set, bathed in the rich marzipan hues of Jim Ingalls' lighting. His conjuring of the eerie midday gloom of a solar eclipse is the show's most evocative moment.
If only what transpired on that exquisite set were half as fascinating. When he's not kibitzing with García Lorca, Emiliano is welcoming an estranged adult daughter from the States, Marina (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Impeding a seamless reunion are Emiliano's housemates: a fellow middle-aged free spirit, Paquita (Priscilla Lopez), and a young Moroccan perfume-maker, Karim (Pedro Pascal). Complications, if not complexities, ensue.
Cruz has an unashamedly poetical sensibility. He's not afraid to gorge on ripe symbols and obvious metaphors: Emiliano, nurturing his inner dad, collects bird nests; the eclipse arrives just as the central love triangle has been traced, with bodies interposing between other bodies. But for every lovely speech it contains, "Beauty of the Father" pulls a cheap trick, as when Paquita abruptly spills a big secret to Marina at an inopportune time. Cruz often withholds crucial information long after it would've been mentioned so he can spring it when he thinks it will provide the maximum emotional tremor. The result is more shaky than moving.
Greif's diffident direction doesn't help. Rodriguez takes the underwritten part of Marina nowhere, while Pascal is all yearning and equivocation as Karim. The handsome Coster shuffles and seethes as if waiting for an independent film crew to capture his suffering, while Lopez strikes a pose of knowing joie de vivre, then crumples a little. Only Isaac, as the dapper phantom of García Lorca, stays above the fray.
When a ghost is the liveliest character onstage, you're in trouble.