Alphabet City V
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 17, 2008
For five summers now, Metropolitan Playhouse has mounted Alphabet City, a series of short solo plays based on the lives of residents of the vibrant, diverse neighborhood that the theatre calls home. The guiding principle here seems to be that everybody has a story to tell, and so the subjects of these short stage biographies are usually not famous: indeed, oftentimes the stars of these shows are people we all too often take for granted. The impulse to celebrate the authentic pulse of this quintessential slice of NYC—which encompasses the East Village as well as Alphabet City—is a great reason to take in at least one of this year's three evenings of plays. And the theatrical artistry of all involved is another.
I caught "Avenue C," which is the third of this year's three programs. It consists of three plays, each about 20 minutes long: Pierre du Petit Versailles, written and performed by Tim Cusack; Become Your Dream, written and performed by Katharine Renee Cortez; and From East Village to East Village, written and performed by Lisa Barnes. All are directed skillfully by Derek Jamison.
The first piece is about Peter Cramer, a longtime Alphabet City resident/artist and co-founder and curator of Le Petit Versailles, a community garden on East Houston Street. Cusack presents Cramer at home, potting two young plants, giving this character energy and of course foreshadowing this lasting contribution Cramer has made to the quality of life in the neighborhood. In the play, Cramer traces his life in the East Village over nearly three decades, sharing anecdotes about various clubs and performance projects, as well as more personal information about how he and his partner, Jack, live with HIV. Much of the material is tinged with a kind of sadness, reflecting the many changes and losses that AIDS and gentrification (among other causes) have brought to Cramer and the community. But this piece is filled with bright humor and a life force exemplified by those plants.
Cortez presents artist/entrepreneur James De La Vega in Become Your Dream. Her piece takes the form of the actual interview she conducted with De La Vega; she portrays him, and the audience essentially portrays her. The throughline of the piece traces De La Vega's work and philosophy, which are both fairly inspirational. For me, the most interesting aspect was simply learning about another treasure in this amazing city of ours: De La Vega Store on St. Mark's Place, which I presume I have walked by dozens of times but never paid any attention to. Now that I've met this remarkable young artist, courtesy of Cortez and Metropolitan Playhouse, I intend to pay this place a visit!
The final piece introduces us to Jubayer, the manager of Panna II, an Indian restaurant on First Avenue. (The stage is neatly decked out for this piece in hanging chili peppers and lights, a nice paean to an atmosphere this dining establishment helped bring to NYC.) Barnes portrays this young man, an immigrant from Bangladesh, with a meticulously re-created accent. The play offers an interesting and necessary glimpse at a life that most of us don't bother to examine—a recent immigrant who has come here convinced that America is the "best place" (his words), craving opportunity and hard work to better his position. Jubayer's story is perhaps the most resonant in this series, since for so many of us, somebody two or three or four generations back in our family history probably has the same one. It's also touching and funny in places—I loved Jubayer's explanation of how Indian and Bengali cuisines are the same.
In Cusack, Cortez, and Barnes, we have three skillful interpreters to bring three very different and very worthy denizens of Metropolitan Playhouse's stomping grounds to life. Catch this trio, or one or more of the others in Alphabet City V. And look forward to more of the same in years to come.