New York's neighborhoods are packed with diversity and peculiar characters, especially those like Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the city's most ethnically heterogeneous. The folks at Theatre 167 have brought the laughs and drama of this cultural smorgasbord to the stage before in three earlier plays (167 Tongues, You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, and Jackson Heights 3AM).
Theatre 167's current writing team, which comprises Jenny Lyn Bader, J. Stephen Brantley, Ed Cardona Jr., Les Hunter, Tom Miller, Melisa Tien, and Joy Tomasko, have returned to the neighborhood in I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, or, This Is a Mango, now running at the New Ohio Theatre. Though at times heavy-handed and overambitious, I Like to Be Here offers an engaging and often amusing look into the lives and aspirations of the denizens of this multiethnic New York enclave.
The play tackles numerous storylines involving almost two dozen characters whose lives crisscross over the course of a couple hours in Jackson Heights. It's midnight, and no one seems to be sleeping. Drag queens set out for an evening at the gay club Evolution, two police officers interrogate a father who wheels his baby in a stroller, a meth addict bloodies his hand and raises a ruckus at a hospital, and a seemingly endless number of other stories swirl around one another in an ocean of chance encounters and unexpected events.
Juggling so many small plots and making them cohere is tough, but director Ari Laura Kreith paces the action well, allowing enough of one storyline to sink in before beginning another, and as stories gently weave together, the play develops a rich dramatic texture. There are poetic moments to be found in this tapestry of New York life, including one character's recitation of a dosa recipe that acts as a gateway into his life story. The writing also shines in comical scenes. The two taxi dispatchers, wonderfully played by Lipica Shah and Indika Senanayake, offer delightful, well-delivered humor between the play's serious moments. J. Stephen Brantley deserves special mention for his brilliant performances as the violent meth addict Leo and the reserved, closeted gay cop Jim.
But perhaps the playwrights bit off more characters than they could chew, leaving some underdeveloped. We learn little about the young tomboy Alex (Brandi Bravo), who chafes at the feminine gender roles thrust upon her. She meets the drag queen Reina (played by another of the play's excellent dual-role performers, Jerreme Rodriguez), who tells Alex to remain true to herself. But clichés like that don't satisfy. The play's ending, too, with its high tension, trips into an anticlimactic final scene that feels far longer than necessary.
Still, the authenticity of I Like to Be Here leaves you with the feeling of time well spent. Its excellent cast and unique vignettes provide a fascinating and genuine portrait of a part of New York that many have never seen but that all should know.
- Ari Laura Kreith
- New Ohio Theatre
- Theatre 167
- I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited
- New York Stories
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