Papi Dearest

Carlos Valencia and Oscar Hernandez in Eduardo Machado’s Eduardo Machado’s “Mariquitas” runs through May 19 at Theater for the New City. | SION FULLANA

Carlos Valencia and Oscar Hernandez in Eduardo Machado’s Eduardo Machado’s “Mariquitas” runs through May 19 at Theater for the New City. | SION FULLANA

When you go see a play about Cuban hustlers, chances are you expect a certain amount of swarthy macho studs, furtive sex, and self-deception. In Eduardo Machado’s richly ambitious new work, “Mariquitas,” you get plenty of that and much more. And I’m not just talking about full-frontal nudity.

Set in a gay-friendly guesthouse in Old Havana circa 2008, “Mariquitas” (derogatory slang for homosexuals) is an impassioned study of complex contemporary Cuban life and ideology inspired by a trip the New-York based playwright took to Cuba, where he was born.

The drama features Cubans from disparate social classes playing each other to get what they need. Not just food, shelter, money, and sex, but a sense of belonging and of being loved. We meet conniving Cuban hustlers, their affluent European papis who visit for weeks at a time, well connected, artistic progressives, and a charismatic gay rights activist who happens to be the daughter of President Raúl Castro.

Cuban hustlers seek true love

The ensemble is quite strong, ensuring there’s not a stale stereotype in the bunch. José María (Oscar Hernandez), “at death’s door” from lung cancer, has come to spend his final days with the love of his life, Tito (a brooding, tattooed Carlos Valencia). Ramón (Omar Chagall), the guesthouse owner and a renowned theater director, is madly in love with long-term partner Ricardo (Liam Torres), who has decided to go straight. Jacinto (Ed Trucco) is a controlling client from Spain who has bought himself the title of playwright.

Ricardo Dávila and Matthew d’Amato manage to add nuance to their boytoy roles. Even the maid, as played by Ana Valle, has surprising dimension.

On one level, “Mariquitas” is a bold, fascinating psychosexual study of a hidden subculture where gay-for-pay, double lives, and sweaty three-ways with friends — breathlessly documented on smartphones — are business as usual. In this sphere sexuality is refreshingly fluid; many of the men have wives and children and might consider themselves bisexual if they accepted labels at all.

Under the sensitive direction of Michael Domitrovich, “Mariquitas” is the rare gay play that dares to merge eye-popping drama with intricate, substantive sociopolitical themes. But I’m afraid this strength may also be a liability. By attempting to cram so many vital ideas, multiple subplots, and titillating sexual scenarios, the emotional impact is blunted. The overlong play runs about two-and-one-half hours.

While we might normally think of Cuba as a Communist state oppressed by a dictatorship blind to individual rights –– the play reminds us that under Fidel Castro, gays were rounded up and sent to work camps — the unblinking “Mariquitas” paints a picture of change.

The scene of Fidel’s niece, Mariela Castro Espín (eloquently portrayed by Begonya Plaza), speaking at a gay pride rally where men hold hands and kiss while the chief of police looks on, is especially moving. Her words were lifted verbatim from actual speeches.

I plead ignorance here — I had no clue there was a burgeoning LGBT community in Havana. Just last week, the activist made headlines when the State Department allowed her to accept an award from the Equality Forum in Philadelphia, where she visited the Liberty Bell.

MARIQUITAS | Theater for the New City | 155 First Ave., btwn. Ninth & Tenth Sts. | Through May 19 | Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m. | $15 at or 212-254-1109