It may be contradictory, but good people can do bad things, while bad people can also do good things. This seems to be part of the message of Reinaldo Povod’s Cuba and the Teddy Bear, which originally opened on Broadway 1986 with some actor named Robert De Niro in the lead role.
Cuba is a tightly scripted and acted father and son drama with drug and gay themes, set against the background of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. Brian Burke plays Cuba, a Puerto Rican/Irish cocaine dealer, the solo father of Teddy (David Alfano, whose cast bio appears to be humorously fabricated). Teddy has artsy aspirations and resents his father’s form of gainful employment, as he reaches for something better. A Hispanic cut off from his roots, Teddy laments that he can’t speak Spanish.
Jackie (TV/film vet Kyle Heffner) is Cuba’s goofy sidekick. As Lourdes, Melissa Camilo of Washington Heights (the eponymous largely Dominican Manhattan neighborhood of Broadway’s In the Heights) is amusing as a stereotypical Latino bombshell who accompanies Redlights (Josh Davis) to Cuba’s pad. Playing Che’s sidekick, J. David Shanks emanates menace as the homeless, crippled Dealer; given his ragged street appearance, I expected his soiled costume to reek as he wreaks mayhem during a drug deal gone bad.
Brandon Alter steals the show as Che, a Hispanic zoot-suited Tony Award winning playwright-cum-hood, who seeks to seduce Teddy – drug-wise, as well as sexually. This talented junkie – or, as Teddy prefers to call him, “addict” – has pissed his gift and money away on smack, while living on New York’s mean streets and still dreaming of stardom. Perhaps Povod, a part Puerto Rican playwright who died when he was 34 of AIDs related TB, projected much of himself into the character of Che.
Charles Reed deftly directs this ensemble cast. All of Cuba’s action takes place in the title characters’ apartment inside of a slum near or at what New Yorkers called “Alphabet City,” a part of town that had a wild and woolly reputation during the hard times of the 1980s. I have one minor quibble: the Actors Collective’s stage includes a loft, where Teddy’s bedroom is located. However, I truly doubt that tenements located in Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East side have upstairs bedrooms.
In any case, Cuba and the Teddy Bear reminds us of the all-important father-son, parent-child bond and relationship. Break that, and all hell can break loose. I have observed that the children I know for him that link has been torn of asunder often don’t fare well. Despite being an illiterate drug dealer, to his everlasting credit Cuba still tries his best to be a good dad, despite it all.
Povod’s father was from Cuba, although he was of Russian decent, and the play has repeat references to an Afro-Hispanic brand of Christianity that is practiced in the Caribbean. Other than that, I don’t have a clue as to why he entitled his drama Cuba and the Teddy Bear and named its most enigmatic character Che, as in Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The only drugs El Commandante was known to use were for his asthma. In any case, revolutionary Cubans have a saying: “Cuba si, Yanquis no!” As for this powerful play, this critic says if you enjoy moving family drama: “Cuba See, Junkies No!”
Cuba and the Teddy Bear is being performed through April 4 at the Actors Collective, 64770 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90038, on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8:00 p.m. For more info: (323)463-4639 or www.theactorscollective.com.
Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.