I have a short attention span,” says playwright Reinaldo Povod, “so I have to do things in the heat of the moment. I write in 20-hour spurts sometimes, but now that I’m getting old, I can only write for four.”
If Povod feels like Father Time, it may be because he’s come an unusually long way in his 26 years, evolving from New York street kid to Broadway playwright. After an eight-week sold-out engagement at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in downtown Manhattan, Povod’s powerful drama Cuba and His Teddy Bear moved uptown in July, where it is scheduled to run until Sept. 21. The show marks the Broadway debut of Burt Young, Ralph Macchio and Robert De Niro. All agreed to work for Broadway’s minimum wage ($700 a week)so that the production could make the move.
Povod’s emotional, autobiographical story takes place on New York’s Lower East Side. It concerns the volatile but loving relationship—based on that of Povod and his father—between Cuba (De Niro), a hot-tempered drug dealer, and his misunderstood teenage son, Teddy (Macchio). Cuba was first brought to producer Papp’s attention in 1985 by the show’s director, Bill Hart, a longtime Public Theater associate who had been scouting Hispanic talent. “The thing that got me about this play,” says Papp, “is the way the father fights for the love of his son. You don’t see this in a middle-class home.” Papp passed the script on to De Niro, who felt the very physical role of Cuba was worth his returning to the stage after a 16-year hiatus.
While critics for the most part have lauded the acting and the scalding realism of the dialogue, many felt that the play lacks a compelling narrative. Povod, who blasted out his first draft in just two weeks in September 1984, admits, “It had been simmering in my head. I had to let it go or it would have blown the top of my head off.”
Povod’s interest in writing began as a boy with “just thoughts, words and phrases I would put down.” The son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father of Russian descent, Povod grew up in the teeming East Village, fascinated with “the exhilaration and madness of the street life. During the ’60s it was a number one drug neighborhood. I saw a lot of shit go down. But what I remember best is my apartment, nighttime, a cool breeze and the hum of solitude you get from the streets. I’d never trade it for anything.”
With his parents alternately splitting and reconciling, Povod was raised by his paternal grandmother, Lilia Esther. Like Teddy in the play, Reinaldo loved and feared his father, who showed up at home periodically for a change of clothes. “I was his valet, so to speak,” says Povod, who would fetch his father’s clean shirts and underwear. “But I liked it. My father was a hero to everybody on the block. He was a rough man on the streets, and he was respected and feared.” In 1978, after leaving New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Povod began to hang out with writers at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in the East Village. In 1979, at 19, he put on a one-act play at the cafe, which Bill Hart saw. Even after writing Cuba, Povod remained insecure about his talent. Then, last year, his second play, La Puta Vida Trilogy (which is set on the streets of the South Bronx and which translates as “this bitch of a life”), was read at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah, where it received favorable reviews. “That convinced me I could write,” says Povod.
Povod wrote Cuba with De Niro in mind. When they met (as a boy Povod had watched the star film Taxi Driver in his neighborhood) he was not disappointed. “He’s more concerned about you than he is about himself,” Povod says. “He’s changed my attitude toward people. If he says he’s going to call you at 3, he calls you at 3. I respect him very much for that.”
Though he is currently adapting Cuba for the screen, Povod says he wants to “wash my hands of it and get on.” He promises that the debut of his La Puta Vida Trilogy at the Public Theater next season will “make Cuba look like child’s play.” Papp is more cautious. “He has a way to go,” the producer says, “but Ray has the essential ingredients for a writer—the passion and the natural skill.” And the modesty. Admitting he was abrasive in making suggestions on the Cuba set, Povod says, “I come off like a foghorn and it turns people off. But,” he adds, reflectively, “once they let it sink in, they know I’m right.”