Growing up is tough. Especially those darn teenage years. But it’s also something every person, whether in the projects or the country club, has to do. The universality of this transition means that even if the circumstances of a particular character aren’t your own, it’s still easy to relate and emphasize. Thanks to an engaging and committed cast and several cracking scenes, such a feeling is possible in Ghetto Babylon, but only if you’re able to get through one of the most long winded, unfocused scripts I’ve ever seen.
Michael Mejias’ play, which I gather is partly autobiographical, focuses on Charlie, a 14 year-old genius grieving his mother’s death and longing to soar beyond the South Bronx projects where he lives. It’s the summer of 1982, and the last one before “Charlie Baseball” and his two best friends enter high school. It’s also their final year of rec league baseball, which means a last shot at winning the Bronx district championship. In the midst of all this, a girl enters the picture, and Charlie is finally presented with “a way out.”
As far as coming-of-age tales go, the story of three kids in the projects swimming against a tidal wave of change is pretty compelling. In Ghetto Babylon however, Mejias drains this strong foundation of its strength and charm by refusing to decide if he’s writing a play or a one man show. From the very beginning, Charlie speaks to us directly, spending what seems like hours telling us every thought, joke, and aside that flashes across his brilliant young mind. Maybe with a massive round of editing, this mash up of styles could work, but not here. Charlie’s incessant interruptions kill the momentum, ruining several good, sharply written scenes and exchanges. Mejias has also dropped in a ghostly visit from Charlie’s literary hero, and attacks by a giant neighborhood thug, all of which I found confusing and distracting.
Probably most frustrating about the script is in the end, I didn’t leave thinking about the fine performances of this cast. That's a shame. Playing a teenager on stage is a tall order. This ensemble, however, finds a way to capture the highs and lows of those awkward years without ever settling for type. Especially exciting are the performances of Talia Marrero and Sean Carvajal, both of whom switch effortlessly between hilarious and heartbreaking.
Even in the city of 8 million stories, it seems like producers keep putting up the same ones. So while I can’t recommend Ghetto Babylon, I’m happy to see kids like Charlie and his friends finally getting their due.