Michael Mejias' new play about a trio of pals in the South Bronx expertly captures the community it depicts.
The dog days of summer come to evocative life in Ghetto Babylon, Michael Mejias' exciting new dramedy about three best friends whose relationship is torn apart by a lie of omission. We've seen plays of this nature before. But in setting the work in the South Bronx circa 1982, and introducing a well-known character from the canon of American literature to a surprisingly non-gimmicky effect, the playwright, aided by director Gregory Simmons and an electric cast, manages to subvert our expectations.
The central trio consists of Charlie (Alejandro Rodriguez), Felix (Malik Ali), and Spec (Sean Carvajal), three Latino teens hoping to bring the baseball championship title to their little section of New York City. The boys are as close as it gets; cousins Charlie and Felix live together with their grandmother and have rarely been without Spec, their tough, big-mouthed BFF.
Rewinding and fast-forwarding time through Charlie's first-person narration, Mejias takes us through all of the games leading up to the championship match. Thanks to Charlie's ace pitching skills, the boys and their team win every match along the way and seem like shoo-ins to take home the leather jackets they so covet. But everything is thrown into jeopardy when Charlie, who also happens to be exceedingly bright, finds out that he's been accepted, on full scholarship, to a prestigious private high school in New England. His first day on campus happens to fall at the same time as the final game. When Felix and Spec find out, Charlie's loyalty is thrown into question. The only person who can help him now is a mysterious man in a red hunting cap who seems to have jumped off the pages of Charlie's favorite novel.
Mejias has a natural flair for writing convincing dialogue. When Rodriguez, Ali, and Carvajal recite their lines, they evoke the rhythms of South Bronx Spanglish, a foreign and yet entirely understandable mix. These actors, who look no older than their mid twenties, might be far from the age they portray in this show, but they're completely believable. Carvajal, in particular, earns great laughs from his trash-talking. Ali brings gravitas to his quiet Felix. Rodriguez makes for a captivating narrator. The remaining cast members — Talia Marrero as Charlie's love interest, Sarafina, Andrew Schoomaker as "TheCatcher," and Rodney Roldan, extremely frightening as playground bully "TheBobby," are also exemplary.
Under Simmons' direction, the piece moves swiftly, and the performers make excellent use of 59E59's Theater C, a small space with the audience on both sides of the stage (Brian Ireland designed the simple, baseball-field set). The result is a production experienced so up close, it's like you're sitting on the field or staring up at the stars on Charlie's roof right alongside him. It's an intimate show on all fronts, and one that we're lucky to take part in.