Macha Theatre’s Greta’s Cuban Lover

Odalys Nanin knows her Golden Age of Hollywood inside and out. Or, more precisely, she knows her lesbian history as it played out in the private homes of Hollywood royalty.

In this case, it is Mercedes de Acosta’s penchant for long pants and exotic leading ladies that is the subject of Nanin’s 2001 play, “Garbo’s Cuban Lover.” There is a reason why she was known as “a lover to the stars.” She bedded (whether rumored or confirmed – mostly confirmed) among others: Alla Nazimova, Ona Munson, Tallulah Bankhead, Isadora Duncan and Marlene Dietrich, but it is her greatest love, her soul mate Greta Garbo, upon which this play hinges.

The play opens late in de Acosta’s (Odalys Nanin) life as her muse, Isadora Duncan, played by the enchanting Erin Holt, tends to her recent brain surgery. We’re immediately swept back to the early 1920s, at the moment that she meets the Swedish film actress Greta Garbo. Over the course of nearly thirty years, we see their unpredictable relationship flourish – mostly stoic retorts from Garbo (delivered with delightfully dry wit by Elyse Mirto) to de Acosta that “I vant to be alone.”

During that period, de Acosta secures a contract at MGM where she butts heads with Irving Thalberg (John Nagle.) Tension in this Sapphic melodrama turns up a notch when the sexually free Marlene Dietrich (Julia Kostenevich) makes advances on de Acosta. Stuck between true love and lust, de Acosta, naturally, indulges both. Always the free spirit and progressive thinker, she presaged the free love of the 60s counterculture and advocated for same-sex marriage, even at a time when it was inconceivable to do so.

The many layers that make de Acosta such a compelling character are vividly brought to life by an imaginative script, full of humor and pathos that blends fact and fiction into one seamless, plausible narrative.

Shon LeBlanc’s costumes and a simple Art Deco set piece transport us to Hollywood’s Golden Age; and Nanin’s direction (along with co-director Laura Butler) is fluid enough to keep the action flowing like champagne at a Golden Age Hollywood party.

The ensemble cast is superb. Lisa Merkin as Salka Viertel delivers her lines with sublime humor; Mirto is dead-on as Garbo, offering up an amazing performance; as Thalberg, John Nagle, the only male in this cast, holds his own.

Unfortunately, in taking the lead role herself and in contrast to the other nearly flawless performances, the author plays de Acosta with a Ricky Ricardo-slapstick style at odds with the overall tone. In so doing she often diminishes the poignancy of the play.

Happily the rest of this production is solid enough to overcome this miscue. This is a standout revival of a very good play.

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