If anyone in Exquisite Agony acted like a real-life human being, even for a few minutes, the other characters would all freak out, unsure what to do.
I have (I thought) a pretty high tolerance for melodrama and emotional-rather-than-logical plot development, but this story of a successful opera singer (Luz Nicolás) who becomes obsessed with the person who received the heart of her late organ-donor husband, wears thin more than it builds high. Convinced part of her late spouse’s memories or spirit lives on in his ticker, she gets all weird about it, but so does the story: giving the poor young man (Joel Hernández Lara) some of the tastes, interests, and anxieties of the dead one. This is the kind of soapy drama where anecdotal medical evidence translates directly into plot points.
Exquisite Agony, which is neither, was written and directed by Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer winner for Anna in the Tropics. It’s going on now until March 1 at Gala Theatre, and it might just be for you if you like the sound of raw emotional moments voiced directly at someone’s bare chest (the show continuously finds occasions for Lara to take his shirt off).
There are a few things to recommend it: Nicolás turns in a touching performance, as does Catherine Nunez as her well-intentioned daughter. The set from Clifton Chadick is intriguing and unusual with a platform “performance space” slowly bleeding the action into a green-turfed “real world,” and sound designer David Crandall does a great job blending music and atmospherics. Visually and auditorily, the show is lovely.
But Cruz never uses one sentence to get a point across when four will do. The typos in the subtitles are distracting. And by the time the whole cast gathers for one of those family dinners that never really comes together, it’s increasingly clear that nothing much is going to happen beyond some yelling and recrimination.
Tough to tell which is worse: The use of a revelation of childhood sexual abuse as a way to raise the stakes deep in Act Two … or how the other characters slam the victim with “Ugh, why do you have to make it all about you? If you were really suffering, you’d keep your mouth shut.” Yikes.
Pun deeply intended, this show does have heart. But repeatedly showing that isn’t the same as meaningfully probing it. Do we live on after our deaths? Probably not like this.