An opera star with a penchant for dramatic sorrow shows up at a doctor’s office, looking for her husband’s heart. Someone got it when he died, after a car crash months before — which means that somewhere, inside another person’s rib cage, a piece of her husband lives on.
To Millie’s grown children, this obsession with her dead Lorenzo’s heart looks like stubborn grief for a man who mistreated her for years. She misses him, though. So she asks Dr. Castillo, who performed the operation, to pass along a letter to the transplant recipient.
Thus begins a tantalizing correspondence in Nilo Cruz’s “Exquisite Agony,” a poetic tangle of a new play at Repertorio Español. Directed by José Zayas, the drama at first revolves around Millie (Luz Nicolás) and Amér (Gilberto Gabriel Díaz Flores, in a lovely performance), the tender young man whose chest now houses Lorenzo’s heart.
“From inside my body, I take Lorenzo for walks, hum tunes and wonder how he saw the world,” Amér writes to Millie, unsure that they should meet. He wonders, too, if his secondhand heart still carries Lorenzo’s impulses and memories. That would explain some of his recent cravings, and also his newfound fears.
Cautiously curious though Amér is about Lorenzo, who was a composer, Millie is more interested in using Amér to help her trace her own heart’s memories — as is her son, Tommy (Gonzalo Trigueros), a seethingly hostile man who blames his parents for his pain. When Amér at last agrees to meet, bringing along his protective brother (Pedro De León) and the soothing Dr. Castillo (Germán Jaramillo), the turbulence of Millie’s family engulfs him. These survivors are the wreckage Lorenzo left behind, casualties of his imperfect heart.
Performed in Spanish (with seat-back English subtitles) on a sleek contemporary set (by Raúl Abrego), “Exquisite Agony” wants to be a play about the human heart: its fumblings and yearnings, its bruises and scars, its generosity and viciousness.
When Amér addresses his new heart directly, as if it were another person, there’s more than metaphor in the gesture. When he finds an easy rapport with Romy (Soraya Padrao) — Millie’s tattoo-artist daughter, who wants to camouflage his scar with a design — there is the sense that their hearts recognize each other instantly.
But as the family’s clashing feelings about Lorenzo come to the surface, the play turns unwieldy. Beautifully strange at the start, it gets as messy and confused as the emotions it contains — its romance drowned in chaos, the gentle Amér overwhelmed by the embittered Tommy.
“We should’ve been more prepared to meet you,” Millie tells Amér, comically, after their encounter has badly devolved. She never does learn much about this young man in whom her husband’s heart is taking root, changing him in unexpected ways.
Neither do we, and that feels like a missed opportunity all around.
Through Aug. 3 at Repertorio Español, Manhattan; repertorio.nyc. Running time: 2 hours.