Ivan Camilo, Ruperto Vanderpool, and Modesto Laces
in La Barbería
(© Carol Rosegg)
Ivan Camilo, Ruperto Vanderpool, and Modesto Laces
in La Barbería
(© Carol Rosegg)
Theatergoers needn't have a fluency in Spanish to appreciate the tremendous heart and humor that lies at the center of David Maldonado and Arí Maniel Cruz's La Barbería, now playing at New World Stages. At the same time, though, one needn't know the language to wince at some of the writers' contrivances and dramaturgical missteps, which are mitigated by director Waddys Jáquez's often inventive staging and some truly appealing performances.

The crux of La Barbería, set in a Washington Heights barbershop (brought to life with a keen and witty eye for detail by scenic designer Raul Abrego), is a familiar one: Beny (Manny Perez) is trying to decide whether he should take advantage of the gentrification taking place in the neighborhood and sell the property, originally bought by his parents, for a huge profit. Perez brings a fiery drive to this man who's seeing an easy way to achieve long sought after upward mobility. At the same time, he shows the more sensitive pangs of guilt and doubt that come with making such a decision palpable.

Beny's conundrum is compounded by the people around him, including his co-worker Cheo (a touching and comically spot-on Mateo Gomez), who thinks selling the shop would destroy Beny's parents' legacy. Beny's aspiring fashion designer sister Nurya (played both tartly and sweetly by Sunilda Caraballo) is torn; on one level, she finds the idea of sharing the profits with her brother enormously appealing, and yet, she feels honor-bound to keep the building in the family.

Beny hears from others too, including the building super and shop's handy man, Correo (an immensely appealing Modesto Laces); a shop regular, Bachatero (imbued with a true showman's elan by Ruperto Vanderpool), a black musician, with aspirations for being a latter-day James Brown; and barber Sandy (made a preening Latino peacock by Ivan Camilo), a neighborhood lothario with a wife still living in the Dominican Republic.

Maldonado and Cruz have created a marvelous sense of a cultural melting pot in the play: in addition to the Dominicans, Sandy and Correo, Beny and his sister are of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, while Cheo comes from Haitian and Dominican forebears. (My theatergoing companion, of Puerto Rican descent and fluent in Spanish, informed me that the show is enriched enormously by the ways in which the dialogue incorporates slang specific to the characters' different heritages.)

The play is further enlivened by the writers' clever use of short musical sequences -- which are both part of the action and separate from it. These moments, lit with cunning style by Sarah Sidman and choreographed with humorous flair by Jacquez, feel as if they are a 21st-century equivalent of magic realism. They prove to be among the show's highpoints, particularly the tongue-in-cheek rap sequence that introduces Sandy.

Unfortunately, the playwrights' unconvincing attempt at raising the dramatic stakes just before the first act curtain and the mounting clichés that the writers employ to propel the show to its conclusion undermine what's most appealing about the show: its carefully calibrated balance of everyday banter and showier musical interludes.