Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) is a thought-provoking and entertaining new work by Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of Anna in the Tropics. The unusual premise of Exquisita Agonía centers on the unsaid, the unfinished and what is known as cellular memory.
Millie Marcel (Luz Nicolás) has lost her husband, Michael Lorenzo, in a tragic car accident. His heart has been transplanted into the body of a younger man, Amér (Gilberto Gabriel Diaz Flores) by a doctor, Castillo. The play opens with Millie approaching Castillo (a delightful Germán Jamarillo) to ask if she could get to know the man who now has her husband’s heart.
Castillo explains that the receiver may not want to be known, much less interact with her: it’s a delicate matter. But she has a deep need, bordering on obsession, to find a piece of Lorenzo. She tells the doctor, “Sometimes the days seem identical without him. One day after another, with no change added. Just his absence. But I try to find him in others who knew him. In our daughter and son. In our mutual friends. They always feel like an extension of him.” Despite initial reluctance, Amér agrees to meet Millie and her family.
Cruz’s plot flirts with science fiction; he investigates cellular memory, the theory that organs carry memories, a concept that is contemporary and relevant to a time when transplants have a high rate of success. It also toys with the concept of transference. Amér has sudden anxiety about driving. “After the surgery,” he says, “I feel a strange sensation every time I get inside a car”—and, of course, Lorenzo died in a car accident. Amér also now listens to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3; Lorenzo, a musician, loved Mahler and played many of his songs. Amér is not sure if he has Lorenzo’s life encapsulated in his body somehow.
Millie and her children have taken a liking to Amér because he represents the living body of their late father and her husband. Since Lorenzo died so suddenly, the family had unsettled feelings to resolve. Millie needs to say goodbye to her husband and accept the reality that he is gone.
Her son, Tommy (Gonzalo Trigueros), although originally opposed to meeting Amér, experiences the most catharsis, divulging his feelings in a gripping scene where he calls Amér and has him put the phone to his chest, and then speaks to his father’s heart so his “father” can listen. This literal heart-to-heart talk discloses sexual abuse Tommy endured by one of his father’s musician friends while on tour. Tommy blames his father for leaving him with this person to run off with his lovers. He equally blames his mother for sending him on those trips to watch over his adulterous parent.
The family dynamics are complicated even more by Amér’s brother, Imanol (a charismatic, sometimes funny Pedro De León). After the emotional commotion caused by Millie and her family, Imanol feels the interaction is not healthy for Amér, who is still recovering from the operation. He persuades Amér to leave.
Millie and her family then realize that they never got to know Amér. They never asked him how he felt or what he liked. He was merely a vehicle or incarnation of their deceased relative.
Under the direction of José Zayas, the cast of Exquisita Agonía is superb, particularly Nicolas, who delivers an energetic and comical performance: it’s engaging on all levels. The minimalistic stage design by Raúl Abrego, with simple benches and mirrors along the side of the stage, is nicely done. It works well with the theme of the play. Symbolic and smartly suggestive was a branch that looked like a vein. Costume designer Fernando Then styled the cast in contemporary, fashionable attire. Millie’s outfits are beautiful and colorful, reflecting her personality.
Through the dialogue, crisp and fluid, Cruz tells a fascinating story of where humanity really lives and where it ends. Cellular memory theory is not fully supported by science, but who really knows what neurons carry? Millie certainly believes otherwise.
Exquisita Agonía plays through Aug. 3 at Repertorio Español (138 East 27th St.). Performances run on select Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets are available by calling (212) 225-9999 or visiting Repertorio.nyc.