HARTFORD -- Cuban cuisine is known for its succulent tastes -- slow-roasted pork, garlicky spices, fruity side dishes, fried plantains. How disappointing, then, that Eduardo Machado's ''The Cook," set in a Cuban kitchen, offers such a bland theatrical recipe:
Into a play about one woman's life in Cuba, stir in equal amounts of anger at Batista's corrupt rule between 1933 and 1959 and Castro's communist dictatorship since. Add a tablespoon of outrage at Fidel's brutal suppression of homosexuals. Throw in a teaspoon of debate about whether the Cubans were better off before or after the revolution. Let settle before pouring in 2 ounces of self-righteousness. Add a dollop of TV sitcom humor.
Boil until all the ingredients turn to mush.
You would have to have been living under an ideological rock not to appreciate the background to ''The Cook." Fulgencio Batista led Cuba off and on for about 25 years, protecting American interests as well as the privileged Cuban class. Castro made life better for the poor, but his dictatorship, combined with the US embargo, brought other miseries. The rich and other disaffecteds fled to Florida.
The specifics of the play land us in the kitchen of a Havana mansion. Gladys (Zabryna Guevara) runs the kitchen and is devoted to the materialistic lady of the house, Adria, whose husband is favored by Batista. Comes the revolution, and Adria takes off for Miami. Gladys decides to keep the house, particularly the kitchen, in shape for Adria's return someday. And she gets to stay in the house because her husband, formerly the family chauffeur, is now a full-khaki'd Fidelista.
A bit forced, perhaps? Particularly when Gladys thinks that there's some bond between her and Adria that the audience never sees? When Adria makes Paris Hilton look like the late Susan Sontag? When Gladys's macho husband and gay cousin seem to have been delivered from central casting?
The action, using the term loosely, covers 38 years and never leaves the kitchen. The room is gracefully appointed by Adam Stockhausen, designer of several Huntington Theatre Company productions including ''Sonia Flew" and the upcoming ''36 Views." Carlos, Gladys's husband, walks in and out surveying the scene and, after gaining political power, tries to assert himself as the king of the kitchen as well.
He makes grand statements about the way things ought to be, and Gladys bats them back at him. You half expect him to say, ''One of these days, Gladys. A la luna. Right to the moon." Of course one can do worse than ''The Honeymooners in Havana," and the opening-night audience certainly responded warmly.
One can do better, too. And one should expect better from theater, particularly from a playwright as imaginative as the Cuban-born Machado. Machado runs off-Broadway's INTAR Theatre, which develops plays by Latino writers, and he is particularly adept at writing about the vagaries of identity, often in plays that have little to do with ethnic identity -- ''Stevie Wants to Play the Blues," for example.
But here the questions of identity -- black or white, Cuban or American, rich or poor -- are dealt with in a manner that flits between the lightweight and the heavy-handed. The direction by Michael John Garces (''Breath, Boom" at the Huntington) doesn't really help. Although the production looks good, there isn't much movement in the kitchen, even when dance tunes come over the radio. The acting is capable, but Joselin Reyes, as Carlos's daughter with another woman, is the only actor who convinces us that she's playing a human being, not a stereotype.
Machado met a woman like Gladys, who was tending a house in similar circumstances, on a visit back to Cuba. The hint of reality, though, doesn't make Gladys compelling. If she can't see the limits of her relationship with her former boss, that doesn't make her anything but foolish. Ditto her husband and Fidel. Guevara and Felix Solis, as Carlos, do their best with the parts, but there's not much passion to the characters.
Both are easy setups for inevitable betrayal. And when you let your audience see how things are going to end 10 minutes into a 2½-hour play, you have yourself a recipe for theater that, at best, is only half-baked.