A Day in the Neighborhood

"If life ended tomorrow, I'd still have my memories and dreams," says Alex Law, a flashy Puerto Rican poet who has resided on Avenue B since the 70's. He is the guest speaker for a series of plays at the Metropolitan Playhouse known as Alphabet City, a unique and ambitious endeavor by the theater's artistic director, Michael Bloom. Bloom sent his actors out to Avenues A, B, and C in the East Village on a mission to find the characters that define this quirky section of Manhattan. The actors were then instructed to observe and take notes on their chosen character's story and transform it into a monologue. Alphabet City III focuses solely on those who reside on Avenue B.

The setting is sparse: wooden crates and planks make up the stage, while a noise resembling that of a dripping water pipe provides the only sound effect. The theater is small for intimacy purposes, and the actors take advantage of this by frequently jumping into the audience and speaking to them directly.

At times this approach brings you closer to the story by creating the illusion that you are chatting with the character over coffee. Other times it is uncomfortable to have someone leap off the stage, lock eyes, and speak directly to you in a forceful tone. The balance is a precarious one. English Photographer (Tod Mason) affably converses with the audience, whereas a tightly wound Care Provider (Mario Quesada) comes too close for comfort, screaming questions in your face with such intensity, you uneasily wonder if you should answer.

Deborah Johnstone gives an absorbing performance as a Parisian man named Billy Lyles, who notes the erosion of camaraderie on the avenue. He speaks of a time when residents talked on the streets, picked up tabs at diners, and enjoyed the thriving art scene as a group. Over the years he has watched hip jazz clubs descend into moneymaking machines that want you to buy a drink or get out. He sits on the street trying to connect with his neighbors, sadly resigning himself to accept that times have changed and people don't talk anymore.

Regardless of whether a particular character is worthy of focus, most of the actors are talented enough to carry their stories with wit and charm. There are problems, however, with the clarity of Quesada's monologue that his energetic and impassioned performance cannot overcome. It is never entirely clear which, and how many, characters he is playing at a given time. This is disappointing, because Quesada has several great lines and touching points to make. The problem is that you do not know which person he is playing when he makes them.

Though this production has some wrinkles that need to be ironed out, the Alphabet City series on a whole should be commended for the bold steps it takes in trying something different. The East Village has a rich history, and this play proves how easy it is to pull someone off one of its street corners and find a story fit for a theatrical monologue.

Since these actors have nothing to work with other than a blank stage and a spotlight, they are forced to capture the intricacies of the person they are portraying, down to every twitch, cough, and stutter. It's a difficult feat to accomplish, and during the play's run the actors, themes, and monologues regularly change, so there may be times when the actors fall short of delivering pitch-perfect performances. But even then it's worth the price of admission to watch someone try to fully inhabit the mind, body, and spirit of a stranger he just met on the streets of Alphabet City.

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