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La Barberia

nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
February 13, 2011

What David Maldonado and Ari Maniel Cruz’s La Barberia lacks in originality it makes up for with absolute joy, exuberance, and an extremely charismatic cast.

One can forgive that the story is familiar—a young man with a family business in Washington Heights tries his best to leave it for greener pastures, only to discover where his roots and his dreams truly are. We’ve seen this story before: barber shops are popular settings for all types of plays and films, we’ve seen these dreamers in In The Heights, the Tony Award-winning musical that rocked Broadway and brought Latin culture to the Broadway stage in a realistic manner that had never been seen before. (I will get into an argument with anyone who tries to say West Side Story did it first! That was someone’s version of what our culture was, but not our version.)

In the Heights presented a tapestry of the lives in Washington Heights, a general overview of dreams and struggles to get a piece of the American Dream; La Barberia picks up where In the Heights left off, and gives us an even more specific story. It was as if the writers said, let’s put a magnifying glass to In the Heights, and go inside one of those businesses they’re singing about, and see what specifically goes on there.

Of course, because it is in Spanish, it feels twice as authentic and real; actually it feels three times more joyous that In The Heights did. There’s something magnificent, magical, and inspiring about watching a play in your own language, about feeling a sense of community with an audience that understands more than anyone what the struggle is like. And about acknowledging that some of the best acting being done on the New York stage will never be up for a Drama Desk or a Tony. (Hey guys! How about a Best Foreign Language Play category?!)

La Barberia takes place in a Dominican barber shop in Washington Heights. When Benny Acevedo, a young landlord and the proprietor of the shop, is offered money to sell his building, he faces the toughest decision of his life. As is typical in this type of set-up, everyone has an opinion about what he should do. He is surrounded by the usual types—his Uncle Cheo; Correo, his illegal employee; Nurys, his sister; and Papichulu, the barber shop's ultimate Romeo.

While the story may seem overly familiar, the dialogue contained within the script is sharp, full of sparking, witty, and clever dialogue that feels completely genuine. There’s a reason Spanish is one of the romantic languages! It’s a language that’s full of life and has its own unique rhythms and the writers take full advantage of it.

The production also avails itself of one sweet, genuine and terrific cast. And director Waddys Jaquez does his best to get top-notch performances from them and he completely succeeds.

Modesto Lacen, as Correo, gives a hysterical and natural performance, completely comfortable on the stage; he owns his moments, without upstaging a single one of the other actors. Matteo Gomez is exceptional as Cheo, the eldest member of the family; his performance is both sharp and bitter, as he colors his emotions with both the pride and the jealousy that he feels at watching the next generation move on from their roots. Ruperto Vanderpool’s Bachetero is sensational, and literally stops the show with laughter in a moment near the end of the first act. Anchoring the hilarity is a the deep-hearted performance of Manny Perez as Beny Acevedo, the young man who wants to sell his family’s legacy in order to pursue his more Americanized one. The rest of the principal cast—Sunilda Caraballo, Ivan Camilo, and Graciany Miranda—all are given moments to shine. It truly is an ensemble piece, and they should all be proud of their performances.

The play (with music)'s only weakness is in the musical numbers, which still feel unfinished, and sometimes make the production feel a little clumsier than it really is. Music is part of the Latin Culture, and with time, they will of course integrate into the play better. But for my sake, with language so rich and lines so witty, I could have done without the musical numbers.

However, I laughed all the way back home, repeating lines with my sister and her Dominican boyfriend (who joined me on this adventure) and we were beaming with pride. The kind of pride that comes from being reminded where your roots are, and how much joy can be found in acknowledging what a magnificent community we come from.