‘Bathing in Moonlight’ needs a new argument about married priests

McCarter Theatre’s artistic director Emily Mann and playwright Nilo Cruz have been reunited for the first time since the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” that opened the Berlind Theater in 2003. Unfortunately, their collaboration on “Bathing in Moonlight” isn’t as successful.

The 100-minute play (no intermission) looks fabulous, with a set and lighting by Edward Pierce and costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Mann’s direction is fine and the show is well cast and well acted. The problem is with Cruz’s play, which takes place in 2015  Miami, and revolves around Father Monroe (Raul Mendez), a priest who wants to marry Marcela (Hannia Guillen), but doesn’t want to leave the church to fulfill his passion.

Hannia Guillen and Raúl Méndez in “Bathing in Moonlight.” Credit T. Charles Erickson
Hannia Guillen and Raúl Méndez in “Bathing in Moonlight.” Credit T. Charles Erickson

Marcela’s  family includes her mother Martina (Priscilla Lopez), sister Trini (Katty Velasquez) and her estranged brother Taviano Jr. (Frankie J. Alvarez), who returns home unexpectedly after no communication from him for two years. Alvarez also plays the deceased Taviano Sr., who appears to his widow who is showing signs of  dementia.

The family is struggling financially and is behind on mortgage payments. Father Monroe has helped with some money and, as Martina sells off their possessions — including her piano — and they still can’t make ends meet. Father Monroe encourages Marcela to use the church’s piano to ease the pain. It soon becomes apparent by the way he looks at her and stands close to her, that he also has fallen in love with her.

The problem with the play for the audience is there are just too many unanswered questions and the characters are woefully under developed. Their actions often make no sense.

For instance, Taviano comes home from medical school and is his mother Martina’s hope for infusing money back into the family. She thinks he’s become a doctor (in only two years?) but he has flunked his exams. And it’s not what he wanted to do anyway. So why did he, especially since he must have paid his own tuition as there is no money and has not spoken to his family in years.

He also blames his mother for sending his father to an early grave by forcing him to work several jobs to make money so they could live large as they did in Cuba. What did he do? Where did the money go?  How long has he been dead and how long has money been tight?  Why not sell the house before they lose it?  And where did the money come from to buy all the hats she plans to sell to make money, which obviously won’t be near enough.

In the case of Trini, the daughter, we know so little about her she’s one-dimensional.

Marcela, who lost her job as a piano player (her brother goes to med school, but she doesn’t get a college degree she can use?) enjoys Father Monroe’s attentions, but is too good a Catholic and resists — at first. She eventually succumbs to a kiss.

Raul Mendez plays Father Monroe in "Bathing in Moonlight" by Nilo Cruz at McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
Raul Mendez plays Father Monroe in “Bathing in Moonlight” by Nilo Cruz at McCarter Theatre.

Somehow the media finds out about the “love affair” and we are bombarded with voices of TV newscaster reeling off headlines about multiple assignations in love nests. When did that happen? How did the media find out? Why is this all over the news anyway since no secular crime was committed?

We may not know much about these characters, but one thing we do know is that Marcela is too good a Catholic to have sex multiple times with a priest.

Perhaps most disappointing — since the play centers on Father Monroe’s belief he should be able to marry and remain a servant of God– we only hear the same ol’  pro and con arguments we’ve heard for the past 40 years or more. Father Monroe’s boss, Bishop Andrew (Michael Rudko),  confront each other over the issue and the result is, as expected, the bishop says you Monroe took an oath, he broke it, and the church is not going to let him marry and remain a priest. You want to marry, you must leave. How could he not see that coming?

I’m all for developing new plays. Crave them. But in “Bathing in Moonlight” (great title) there is just nothing new about this issue and the characters are not that compelling.

BATHING IN MOONLIGHT, through Oct.9

McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ Performances:  7:30pm,Tues-Thurs; 8pm Fri; 3 & 8pm Sat, and 2 & 7:30pm Sun; 10/1, Open Captioning; 10/5, Audio Described; 10/8, ASL Interpreted

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