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"I Like To Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, Or, This Is a Mango"

by Glenda Frank


"I Like To Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, Or, This Is a Mango."
Staged by The New Ohio Theatre at part of the E Pluribus 2nd Annual Theater: Village Festival.
154 Christopher St., NYC, from Sept. 4-Sept. 27, 2014.
Mon., Wed. - Sat. at 8 PM; Sun. at 7 PM and Sun. Sept. 21 only at 2 PM.
Tickets are $18, $16 for students and seniors at  http://www.NewOhioTheatre.org or 1-866-811-4111.
For more information visit http://www.Theatre167.org.

Many plays, movies, stories have tried to bring New York to life -- and failed. The New York setting of "If/Then" outraged some of my friends for being unrecognizable, not just too blandly pretty. "Wonderful Town"could use the excuse of bygone eras but the cheap Greenwich Village basement apartment Ruth and Eileen grouse about looks like a gem today. Ethan Hawke’s New York in "Hamlet"is too posh, and "Fort Apache the Bronx"is too gritty. But "I Like To Be Here," a medley of different stories set in Jackson Heights, Queens, comes close. New York is about love, sex, taxi drivers, barking dogs, polyglot immigrant communities -- the whole pay-check-to-pay-check human comedy.

The two hours were conceived and directed by Ari Laura Kreith. Four years ago she invited eleven playwrights to brainstorm. "!67 Tongues," the first play, explored day-to-day life. Next came "You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase,"a Magic Realism adventure rooted in the folk tales of the various first-generation communities. "I Like To Be Here"is the third instalment. The playwrights are Jenny Lyn Bader, J. Stephen Brantley, Ed Cardona Jr., Les Hunter, Tom Miller, Melisa Tien, and Joy Tomasko. Fifteen character actors, mostly young and easy on the eye, act up a storm in the intersecting roles. They all deserve their own ovation.

Several stories and performers do stand out: a police detective from Long Island has arranged a first meeting with the man he has been chatting with online. But the tryst in the man’s apartment -- we learn -- ends in disaster. When we meet the Queens man (J. Stephen Brantley), he is wearing a baseball cap, jacket, sneakers, a jock strap with a thong back (no pants), and a bloody handkerchief around his hand. He is a bundle of psychotic energy, threatening, cajoling, warning, charming people in the street, the hospital, anyone who catches his eye. The shell-shocked detective (also J. Stephen Brantley) is even more withdrawn as he wanders, lost and a drunk, into a gay bar where he meets Pablo (Mauricio Pita), a Latin guy in heels. Pablo encourages him to let loose and dance, and then takes him home, where Pablo’s papa quizzes the detective on American history -- he’s prepping for the citizenship exam -- and tells him he is not good enough for Pablo. It is as funny, poignant, and scary as it sounds.

Meanwhile, two Indian taxi dispatchers (Lipica Shah, Indika Senanayake) chat and direct calls. Their knowledge of the community is astonishing. They can find a location based on how good the food is in a restaurant. A driver (Imran Sheikh) dawdles at the taxi stand to see the Latina (Lisann Valentin) in the bake shop. Both are limited in love by their small English vocabulary. Two cops on the beat quarrel as they keep the peace. A dad with an insomniac newborn wheels the stroller through midnight streets until a restaurateur from Bangladesh (Azhar Kham) puts her to sleep by describing how he cooks his specialty. A resident of 57 years loses her dog. A minimum-wage earner promises his beloved, a girl who "belongs"to a dangerous slave trafficking cartel (Brandi Bravo), that he will help her escape. A tomboy (Brandi Bravo) does laundry. And a cab crashes to avoid a child.

There is lots of action, lots of stories, lots of snippets of language, especially Spanish, not much cohesions, but it all feels as though it sprang from the streets and lives in Jackson Heights. "I Like To Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, Or, This Is a Mango." is a bold experiment, which is well-directed and beautifully performed.


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