Theatre 167, a Jackson Heights based theatre company, takes over the 777 Theater in Manhattan to present a trilogy of original plays about life in that ever changing, multi-cultural neighborhood of Jackson Heights. Conceived and directed by Ari Laura Kreith, the three plays are performed in repertory with an ensemble of 37 actors to play multiple roles. Each play follows a format of many scenes by several playwrights woven together to make a whole.
167 Tongues has an over all theme of transition, with a series of monologues given by real-estate agents promoting the neighborhood, sprinkled throughout the play. The various scenes include long time residents as well as new people just arriving. Exploration of how the many different nationalities and languages collide and blend together to make a unique community is the winding path by which the residents travel. Kreith is able to blend story threads by eleven playwrights together in a gentle flow and a good pace. Any one of the 25 scenes might have been developed into a full play, but as it stands, we are taken away from characters just as their stories get going. The constant changing of characters and individual stories gives the production great variety and it is never dull, but there is the feeling of being robbed just as soon are our hearts are invested in one character or an interesting plot develops. In most cases, we are left wondering what will happen and do not get the satisfaction of a resolution. In other cases we get the resolution without the conflict being sufficiently set up and explored. This is the nature of the beast, for the thrust of the play is to show a snapshot of life in Jackson Heights.
Especially intriguing were scenes about negotiating romantic relationships. One gay couple’s relationship has changed dramatically when one is relegated to life in a wheel chair and the other feels tied down in a way he never anticipated in two scenes. One young couple has very different views on love as they move in to an apartment together. She figures they’re practically married since they are cohabiting, but he doesn’t see the two things as part of the same step. Another scene shows two people meeting based on a shared interest in art where the man summons the courage to make conversation with a woman who is sketching a neighborhood building. They are originally from different parts of the world and there is a slight language barrier, but Jackson Heights has brought them together. The scenes were written by Jenny Lyn Bader, Meny Beriro, J. Stephen Brantley, Alvin Eng, Steven Fecher, Jennifer Gibbs, Les Hunter, Anna Kushner, Rehana Mirza, Suzanne Sheptock and Stefanie Zadravec.
You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase takes on a fantasy element surrounding the plight of Laurita (Cynthia Bastidas) who has just landed and must find her grandmother in Jackson Heights. She meets Joe (Scott Janes) on the plane, a nice young man with an instant crush on the girl and who gives her his metrocard to take the bus to her destination. With a hurried good-bye as the bus pulls away, Laurita mistakenly takes Joe’s suitcase and leaves her own. For the rest of the play, Laurita searches for her grandmother in Jackson Heights while Joe searches for Laurita to return her suitcase. This main story is threaded through other generally unconnected scenes, though the playwrights band together to keep focus on Laurita and Joe. Salim (the highly entertaining Andrew Guilarte) sells cell phones on the street. He sets off a strange chain of events when he sells a ruby red cell phone to Isha (Indika Senanayake). A little boy with a sweet tooth (Israel Gutierrez), is conned by a pair of local teens (Kevin Hoffman and Arlene Chico-Lugo) into spending an hour in an old house thought to be inhabited by ogres (the delightful puppets designed by Michael Wilson Morgan.) Several other story threads, also with fantasy elements, support the themes of communication and searching for true love.
Although this entry in the trilogy feels less polished, both in the execution of the writing and the production (there are strange lulls in the pace and it seems under-rehearsed), there is a satisfaction in being able to spend more time with each character, get to know them, and see how their story arcs play out to an end. The scenes are written by Mando Alvarado, Jenny Lyn Bader, Barbara Cassidy, Les Hunter, Joy Tomasko, Gary Winter and Stefanie Zadravec.
Jackson Heights 3AM is another piece that weaves multiple story lines together and is the most successful play of the trilogy. This time the scenes encapsulate life in the multicultural neighborhood during the course of a single night. The various story threads include a drag queen that injures her ankle during a performance and ends up in the emergency room. The punk kid who caused the injury wants to get into entertainment by joining the drag queen’s act. A gay cop from Long Island is in the neighborhood drowning his sorrows after a botched internet hook up with a meth-head, but meets a sweet Latino man in the local gay bar who helps him to salvage the evening. An Indian car service operator makes a connection with a customer who loves her voice. A doctor is busy juggling her personal life as the inhabitants of the neighborhood intersect at the emergency room during her shift as she does her best to soothe their wounds. A pair of cops, each with very different ways of engaging with the public, try their best to keep the peace. All these stories and more are blended with surprising clarity. For all the hard luck stories the play depicts, there is an over all charm to the people and a great sense of hope that emerges by the end. The scenes are written by Jenny Lyn Bader, J. Stephen Brantly, Ed Cardona Jr., Les Hunter, Tom Miller, Melisa Tien and joy Tomasko.
The acting of these plays is handled with confidence by a group of multi-talented, multi-ethnic actors that seem to make up an accurate picture of Jackson Heights. The parts feel as if they have been written especially for these particular actors for they fit into their roles so nicely. To single out a few is a bit unfair to the others, but I must: In particular, Nina Mehta, playing various characters that represent the Indian culture of Jackson Heights, is a wonderful presence. Samuel T. Gaines brings a dynamic energy to his confident “George,” and plays well against the appropriately timid Israel Gutierrez as “Carlos,” who gives one of the most natural performances in 167 Tongues and is delightful as the little boy in “Suitcase.” Gen Parton Shin gives an empathetic portrayal of the conflicted boyfriend who will not marry. In two slight scenes with a scant amount of dialogue to define character, he has infused his own personality to flesh out a full person. Kevin Hoffman is particularly diverse and delightful in his variations of teen boys throughout the trilogy. Nela Wagman is daffy fun as the mysterious old Marta. Claudia Schneider transforms so much from character to character that I had to double check that it wasn’t more than one actress doing the work. Nicholas Gorham creates a sassy drag queen named “Connie” that turns out to be one of the most noble and interesting characters on display. J. Stephen Brantley shows great range between his closeted cop and his crazy, loud-mouthed, gay half streaker as well as co-writing two of the shows.
Michelle Leibrock does a fine job at helping to define the many characters with costume choices. Jame’s McSweeney’s set does little more than provide a small selection of necessary furniture and a change of background for each play, but he has painted the walls of the theatre with graffiti to evoke the neighborhood. Adding to this is a projection design of slides by Max Ward that subtly moves us about the area. Diana Duecker’s lighting mainly serves to illuminate the scenes, though she finds a few places to add some effective theatrical flourishes, particularly in the fantasy infused “Suitcase.”
If you can only go to one of the plays I recommend Jackson Heights 3AM. However, it is worth it to see all three in any order. The Jackson Heights Trilogy runs through March 3rd. For performance schedule and ticket information check out www.Theatre167.org.