“God wants us to remove barriers and walls,” says Father Monroe, played by Raúl Méndez, at the start of “Bathing in Moonlight,” a new play by Nilo Cruz that is currently receiving its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. This is surely a dig by Cruz at Donald Trump, but also gets at the issue at the heart of the play.
Monroe is infatuated by one of his parishioners, Marcela (Hannia Guillen), a Cuban-American single mother who lives with her mother and daughter and is struggling to make ends meet. And Marcela is infatuated by him. He’s tortured by the thought of renouncing his vows; she, by the thought that she may inspire him to do so.
Does the wall between them have to stay there? That’s what they have to decide.
Cruz’s writing is bold and poetic, and he’s created some intriguing subplots. But the play — directed by Emily Mann, who also worked with Cruz on his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” at the McCarter, more than a decade ago — gets bogged down in Monroe’s not-terribly-compelling head-vs.-heart internal debate, and doesn’t explore anything else sufficiently.
After the play-opening sermon, Monroe pays a visit to Marcela and her family shortly after the surprise arrival of Marcela’s brother Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez). He’s been out of touch for a while: He was supposed to be in the Dominican Republic, studying medicine so that he could help support the family, but — we eventually learn — he has suffered from depression, and dropped out.
Marcela’s financial desperation, in other words, is actually even more desperate than she thought it was at the start of the play.
Marcela’s mother Martina (Priscilla Lopez) is the most colorful character here, a live wire with a sharp sense of humor and a desire to live life to the fullest, even though she’s showing signs of slipping into dementia. In dream sequences, we see her with her late husband Taviano Sr. (also played by Alvarez), revisiting the bliss of their early days as a couple. This parallels Monroe’s memories of the first time he heard Marcela playing the piano at his church, and felt something awakening in him.
Martina and Taviano Jr. could probably be the protagonists of good full-length full plays of their own. But their stories become mere tangents here.
There are two other characters. Bishop Andrew (Michael Rudko) is only there to argue, passionately, that Monroe should remain a celibate priest. And Marcela’s daughter Trini (Katty Velasquez) doesn’t have much to do at all.
The play is set in Miami, though, really, it could be set anywhere. Virtually all of the action is inside a church and a home; there isn’t much of a sense of place except when Martina talks about being young in Havana. And some parts of it don’t seem realistic (and I’m not talking about the dream sequences). For instance, Father Monroe is helping Marcela pay her bills. When he contemplates leaving the priesthood, it never seems to occur to them that one of the consequences would be that they would both be unemployed, and she still has a mother and daughter to take care of.
The chemistry between Monroe and Marcela is palpable (and Alvarez is also particularly good as the impossibly suave Taviano Sr.) And Cruz and Mann come up with a sweetly poetic way to wrap everything up at the end. But there’s not much of a plot here: Just two people struggling with a decision. And, ultimately, making the choice that we expected them to, right from the start.
“Bathing in Moonlight” is at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center through Oct. 9; visit mccarter.org.