East Village Chronicles, Volume II
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 22, 2005
Review of Series A (January 29, 2005)
What does it mean to come to America—to leave behind a country that was home, and embrace a new existence in a new world very different from the old one? That's the question tackled in "The First Generation," Series A of East Village Chronicles Volume 2, the new program of short plays about life in New York's Lower East Side, now on view at Metropolitan Playhouse. (My review of Series B is just below this one.) In four terrific, diverse plays, Anthony P. Pennino, Trav S.D., Saviana Stanescu, and Adrian Rodriguez offer very different but equally insightful answers, making this—in some ways—the most necessary of all the new works evenings presented at this Alphabet City company to date.
The first two pieces on the bill, Pennino's Commedia della Poca Italia and Trav S.D.'s The Irish Melodrama, use iconic cultural theatre traditions to tell stories of young love among two of New York's most priominent immigrant communities. Commedia, unabashedly rooted family history, is about Antonio Pennino, a young shoemaker who set out for the New World in order to escape military service in the Italian colony of Libya in the 1910s, and now lives on Mulberry Street in burgeoning Little Italy. When he sees lovely Nunziatta standing at her window one night, it is love at first sight; but she, daughter of a Padrone, is above his lowly station, or so it seems: how can the two meet, court, and marry? The answer is provided, delightfully, in Pennino's charming episodic play, narrated by Harlequino, that staple of Italian commedia dell'arte, who offers not only sharp-witted commentary but plays the parts of everyone else in Antonio and Nunziatta's romance. In the end, their (true!) story is a tribute to authentic American democracy. The tour that Pennino takes us on includes sojourns to many other ethnic enclaves of the Lower East Side, including (most memorably) a dinner at an Irish saloon where Antonio has his first ale and Nunziatta learns about unspiced food: the melting pot brought to life.
Trav S.D. hearkens back to mid-19th century burlesques of the kind popularized by Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart with his Irish Melodrama, a broad and fanciful tale of a dutiful son named Danny who promises his dying Da that he will watch over his dear sister Mary. When we next see the family, Mary's brought home a big, rowdy longshoreman named Tommy as her latest beau. Will the mild-mannered, poetical Danny be able to protect his sister's (dubious) honor? Mr. S.D. follows—and lovingly twits—the conventions of period melodrama to provide a comical and good-natured conclusion.
The evening's second pair of pieces are contemporary, set in present-day Manhattan where a new generation of immigrants, in search of political freedom as much as economic opportunity, are trying to make their way in a strange land. Ukrainian Blues is by Saviana Stanescu, herself a Romanian emigre in New York. She charts the colliding, divergent, and ultimately triumphantly similar experiences of a mother and daughter from Kiev who have arrived in the U.S. after the fall of the Soviet Union. The daughter, Ivanka, wants to embrace the bohemian lifestyle surging in her East Village neighborhood, and—not at all incidentally—needs to break the news to her mother that her lesbian lover Leslie is moving into the apartment next week. The mother, Gorana, meanwhile, draws on seemingly bottomless reserves of resilience and fortitude to cope with every happenstance, this latest unexpected one included. Her ability to make the same bohemian neighborhood—which houses the Ukrainian church as well as Ivanka's funky friends—into a welcoming home is inspiration to her daughter and all of us in the audience.
Abel, the protagonist of Adrian Rodriguez's Floating Home, came to this country while just a little boy, fleeing with his family from Castro's Cuba. Now a grown man, divorced and with a small son, Abel is conflicted about where his roots are. His brother Juan has no doubt that New York is his home, but Abel is becoming increasingly obsessed with the notion that he's a visitor, or an alien; he's hatching a scatterbrained and surreal scheme to return back to Cuba with the son that he calls Miguel and everyone else calls Michael. Floating Home, abstract and performed in both Spanish and English (the way that Cuban Americans actually speak), is a more difficult and complex play than the other three on the bill. It makes for a thoughtful and effective counterpoint to the rest of East Village Chronicles' exploration of the immigrant experience.
All four of the plays in Series A are directed by Derek Jamison, who does a generally fine job across the board. Six actors reveal their range playing all the roles, with Melanie Rey a particular standout as Nunziatta, Ivanka, and Rosa (Abel's mother in Floating Home), a trio of very different ladies. Barbara J. Spence creates perhaps the strongest characterization of the evening as the indomitable Gorana in Ukrainian Blues, and also plays Danny's Da, Ma, and a Barfly in The Irish Melodrama. Aaron Munoz is very appealing as Antonio in Commedia and turns in solid performances as the rowdy Tommy and Abel's father Ramon. Rob Pedini's best moments are as Harlequino (he also plays Danny); Alberto Bonilla is excellent as the conflicted Abel and silly (in drag) as Mary. Scott D. Phillips is Abel's brother Juan and, in a connecting device threading through the entire evening, reads from Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
Review of Series B (January 21, 2005)
The short new plays comprising East Village Chronicles are a celebration of the diversity of the Lower East Side, which is home to Metropolitan Playhouse, the fine and plucky theatre company on East 4th Street near Avenue B that spends most of the rest of its year re-examining classic works about the American experience. Under the leadership of artistic director Alex Roe and new works director Anthony P. Pennino, Metropolitan first commissioned two evenings about the history of its neighborhood last year, and the success of that endeavor has led directly to this current offering, East Village Chronicles Volume 2, two more programs of original one-acts that focus on some of the ethnic and cultural communities that make up this vibrant and noisy section of New York City. I've just seen one of the two evenings so far (a review of the second evening will come along shortly). So far, even more than last year's effort, East Village Chronicles is a resounding success.
Dubbed "Series B: The Second Generation," this evening contains three sharp, rich short plays that pit subculture against subculture; wrapped around them is a monologue called East Village Kaddish in which a middle-aged Jewish man talks about how his own upbringing as the son of an Orthodox rabbi was affected by the pull of other cultures away from his own. Kaddish is performed by Rob Pedini, who delivers the piece gamely despite the fact that he's certainly a generation or more younger than the character he's playing (his black sneakers feel particularly incongruous). It's written by Pennino, who in it touches on a variety of important subjects such as religious tolerance, the Holocaust, and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. If it feels perhaps a bit perfunctory it nevertheless functions neatly as a frame for the rest of the program's more vividly realized works.
The first of these others is Renee Flemings's Beat, which takes place in a cemetery near the Five Points, the notorious Lower Manhattan neighborhood that, in the mid-1800s, was home to the city's most recent immigrants, who fought brutally for respect and turf in a tough, crowded territory. Flemings leaves this largely in the background, though, as she tells two linked stories of love and conflict involving denizens of the Irish and African American communities who called this area home. The tales, a hundred years apart, tangle in taboos that are still not fully exorcised from our culture. Flemings tells her stories with economy, warmth, and compassion; that's all I will say—see Beat for yourself to learn its surprising twists. The piece is thoughtfully performed by Michael Colby Jones and Scott Phillips as two hot-blooded young Irish Americans and Cherita A. Armstrong and Kwaku Driskell as the African Americans they love.
Gino Di Iorio's play The Pigeon Tree takes place in the early 1970s at the time of the Tompkins Square Riots, which pitted the desperate drug dealers for whom the Alphabet City park was a haven against cops bent on cleaning up the area. Against this volatile backdrop, Di Iorio gives us a taut, incisive drama about a young dealer named GT (who is a heroin addict himself) and his confrontation with a mysterious customer named Charlotte. Di Iorio writes here about people who are seldom given a voice: the kids who are turned onto drugs and turned into junkies, the real victims of the so-called "drug wars." With swift, sharp strokes, the playwright paints a bleak, despairing picture of a tragedy that's all the worse for being so easily preventable. Arthur Acuna and Cherita Armstrong are excellent as GT and Charlotte.
The evening concludes with its longest entry, Qui Nguyen's satire Bike Wreck. Set in the present day, Nguyen's hilarious and on-target comedy involves a triangle whose points are familiar to anybody with even a passing acquaintance with downtown Manhattan: a black Messenger, a Chinese food Delivery Boy, and a designer-suited, six-or-seven-figures-a-year Wall Street type billed in the program simply and directly as The Man. The Messenger and the Delivery Boy, who make their livings on their bicycles, have become friends of a sort as their routes have criss-crossed; The Man is a frequent client of the Messenger and, as a result of chance and chutzpah, the target of the Delivery Boy in a mugging that turns potentially deadly. Bike Wreck is about the economic food chain of modern life, and also about racism and stereotyping; Nguyen and his actors—especially Arthur Acuna as the Delivery Boy and Michael Colby Jones as the soulless white yuppie—fearlessly exploit the racial profiles that we're generally unwilling to admit we carry around in our heads, making us both laugh at and confront the thoughtless, superficial bigotry that pervades any multicultural community. Bike Wreck is funny and scary: a cautionary tale that pokes holes in our assumptions about ourselves and each other with panache, wit, and intelligence.
The whole evening is staged in a seamless, intermissionless 90-minutes by Jude Domski, who is particularly strong realizing the intimate personal stories of Beat and The Pigeon Tree but somewhat less assured with the cadences of Bike Wreck's epic comedy. A simple unit set by Ryan Scott and spare, evocative lighting by Sean Kane serve all of the pieces nicely. Alberto Bonilla has provided some very effective fight direction for Pigeon Tree and Bike Wreck.
East Village Chronicles just seems to get better and better, providing real food for thought about hidden histories and cultures that we consider far too infrequently, and—not at all incidentally—a terrific showcase for some very talented and diverse young playwrights and actors.