In A View from 151st Street, being presented by the LAByrinth Theatre Company at the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall, playwright Bob Glaudini takes us to the mean streets of West Harlem, where lives literally change overnight and death comes in an instant. As with his last LAByrinth outing, the equally frustrating Jack Goes Boating, Glaudini creates a world with authenticity to spare and a host of believable characters — and then ultimately squanders his gifts on unconvincing plotting and spotty structure.
The play, ably directed by Peter DuBois, begins with a drug-deal-in-the-making between supplier and wannabe rapper Delroy (the charismatic Craig “muMs” Grant) and the scruffy Daniel (an impressive Juan Carlos Hernandez). But Daniel turns out to be an undercover cop — one who invites his just-out-of-drug-rehab war buddy Ray (the fine Andre Royo) to live with him and his schoolteacher wife Lina (the always good Liza Colon-Zayas), much to the dismay of his hard-edged sister Irene (a very effective Elizabeth Rodriguez).
The drug deal eventually goes very bad, leaving a severely wounded Daniel with brain damage, and the task of teaching him to talk, read, and write again is now shared by Lina, a cleaned-up Ray, and Ray’s nurse-turned girlfriend Mara (Marisa Malone, in the play’s most electric performance), a brash if goodhearted Russian woman who favors too-short skirts. The scenes of Daniel’s recovery are often touching and sometimes slightly frightening, and audiences may get a “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling.
But just as these scenes threaten to get too TV movie-like, Glaudini takes the play in another direction. Unfortunately, it’s one that seems to come without sufficient motivation to make it believable nor delivers a shocking enough ending to justify it. Worse still, the play just sputters out, as if Glaudini was forced to have the work produced before crafting a satisfying denouement.
Glaudini deserves kudos for bringing privileged theatergoers into a world they may be unfamiliar with, where working-class folks still smoke pot and teachers deal with students who call Bambi a “nigga.” Unfortunately, he seems to have little fresh insight into characters like Delroy, making us wonder why we have to spend so much time of the play’s two hours in his company and listening to his unpleasant raps. Conversely, the character of Daniel’s colleague, Detective Monroe (Russell G. Jones) — with his Webster’s Dictionary vocabulary — seems to be on hand primarily to balance Delroy than for any true dramatic purpose.
David Korins’ sliding set, which ultimately reveals Daniel and Lena’s modest apartment,and an on-stage jazz trio (Andrew Wemer, Nir Felder, and Q) contribute atmosphere to the piece. While 151st Street is not a place most of want to live, Glaudini and company make it a destination worth a short if not totally worthwhile visit.