First Nighter: Nilo Cruz's Touching 'Bathing In Moonlight' Needs More Light

Princeton, N. J. -- Walking through the audience at the beginning of Nilo Cruz's Bathing in Moonlight, at the McCarter Theater, Father Monroe (Raúl Mendéz) greets ticket buyers as if they're members of his Miami congregation--mostly Spanish-speaking Cuban immigrants--and then launches into a sermon about tearing down fences.

As the play progresses, the difficulty of following through on his belief in the wall-altering approach becomes Cruz's dramatic point. (The play takes place in 2015, although Father Monroe never refers to Donald Trump's erect-a-wall insistence.) Father Monroe's faltering purpose becomes personal as his friendship with one family in his parish unfolds. It's a family having financial troubles, particularly in regard to meeting mortgage payments.

The matriarch of the four-member household (Edward Pierce designed the appealing set) is Martina (Priscilla Lopez), who's holding on to memories of a past that may be less privileged than she recalls. Martina's daughter is Marcela (Hannia Guillen). Her granddaughter is Trini (Katty Velasquez). Her son is Taviano Jr. (Frankie J. Alvarez), a failed medical student just back from two lost years.

Marcela is at the Bathing in Moonlight center with Father Monroe. From almost the first moment he drops in on the family to reassure them he will cover their delinquent payments, it's obvious that Marcela has a soft spot in her heart for him. It takes more time, but not that much, before Father Monroe declares his physical and spiritual love for Marcela.

His outpouring takes place during the first of Cruz's two most accomplished scenes. In this one, Marcela attempts to remind Father Monroe of his celibacy vows, but he refuses to deny his ardor. Eventually but with decreasing reluctance she overcomes her resistance. She asks him if he's "pleasured" himself thinking of her. He nods that he has.

The second of Cruz's formidable sequences occurs when Bishop Andrew (Michael Rudko) arrives to confront Father Monroe--who's been named for Marilyn Monroe!--about the now-public affair. Bishop Andrew attempts to remind Father Monroe of his religious obligations and adamantly refuses to accept the priest's arguments that his love for Marcela has only enhanced his faith.

Though at this point Cruz is grappling with a pressing contemporary question about religion in the two scenes mentioned, he raises several other complicated matters in his intermissionless 100-minute work. He treats too many of them tangentially. More about Martina's past needs filling in. During two daydreams she relives her early times with natty Taviano Sr. (Alvarez again), which only suggests more can be probed about her younger life. In bringing Taviano Jr. back from the two years he kept himself among the missing, Cruz also suggests there's a larger story there that needs to be told.

In short, Bathing in Moonlight--the phrase refers to one of the scandalous Father Monroe-Marcela idylls--is unfinished. Right now, the play feels like the outline of a broader look at religion as well as an examination of the Cuban experience in Florida. If a New York transfer is to materialize, Cruz has work to do.

As of now, the cast is doing well with their roles. Guillen and Méndez are persuasive lovers. Lopez's Martina is a moving figure, especially when she admits she's never fit into her adopted country. Alvarez is a malcontented Taviano Jr. in contrast to his depiction of the confident Taviano Sr. Velaquez's Trini is a lively teen.

Emily Mann's direction is often tentative, perhaps due to her sensing Cruz has as yet not completed his sympathetic, ultimately tragic study.