A production of Working Theater, Alternating Currents is part romantic drama, part social commentary, and a dash of historical pageant play,. As part of the company’s Five Boroughs/One City initiative, Adam Kraar’s play, directed by Kareem Fahmy, evolved from interviews with residents of Queens as part of the company’s mission “to create theater for and about working people.” Currents is set in the present at Electchester, an actual complex of 38 buildings in Flushing, Queens. But Electchester’s best days were nearer its founding by Harry Van Arsdale, a benevolent overlord who walked the grounds following construction in 1949.
Electchester was envisioned as a utopia for electrical workers. (The name is a mouthful, but the prefix indicates electricians, and perhaps also an elect population, since the residents all had to be in the union; the “chester” suggests a tonier suburb, like Westchester.)
At the center is an interracial couple, Elena and Luke, but a friendly Narrator (Brian Sgambati, who also undertakes a few other roles) ambles on periodically to set the scene—David Esler’s adaptable space has a grid of pipes painted bright blue around it and just a few serious props—an aluminum ladder, a sofa, a podium with Van Arsdale’s photograph hanging from the front.
Luke and Elena are tired of their tiny Manhattan apartment, and Luke wants to move to Electchester, since he’s an electrician who can qualify for entry. Elena (Liba Vaynberg) is more reluctant. Her worry is partly fueled by her friend Sharonda (an amusing Rheaume Crenshaw), who makes it sound like a cult and feeds Elena dark rumors: “shootings, drugs, gangs—and these red-tail hawks that swoop down and attack people.”
But Elena does research among the residents and ultimately agrees to move there with Luke, in spite of some liberal discomfort with characters such as Brian (also Sgambati), who emphasizes that residents take care of each other:
Brian: We know who’s s’posed to be on our property, and who’s not. I see a kid in the parking lot, dressed a certain way, and he pulls back when he sees me?
Elena: How do you mean, “dressed a certain way”?
Brian: You know what I mean. A certain look. A manner.
Elena is sure he means “black,” but she quickly becomes sold on Electchester, while Jason Bowen’s sympathetic and conflicted Luke soon grows more disenchanted, particularly after overhearing a woman doing laundry complaining on her cell to a friend that she was passed over for promotion: “It’s reverse discrimination. I’m white, I’m over 50 … and she’s the right color.” (It’s one of several characters given vivid life by Antoinette LaVecchia, who also plays Sherry, an upbeat, baking-crazed neighbor.)
Unfortunately, Kraar’s measured assessment of racism seems a bit a bit too balanced: there’s a feeling that Archie Bunker, that famous Queens resident, was an anomaly. In a key scene, a likable old-timer, Sal, reluctantly admits that there was vigilante policing at the complex. He tells Elena that he once swang at an intruder—but points out that the trespassers had shivs.
I’m not a racist. I’m a guy that... was young and stupid…. Yeah, there’s more to be done. More I could be doing. Especially now, when everything could be yanked off the table—like that. But what about you? You gonna do your part? Or walk away?
The more compelling story is the presentation of a frankly communal utopia. Sal (Robert Arcaro) is gung ho about everyone pitching in and earning brownie points for such things as parking spaces. Van Arsdale’s motto was: “If we all stick together—help raise our brothers up—there’s no limit to what we can achieve in this world.”
The wholesomeness of Electchester is contrasted with a nearby complex, Pomonok, where Luke’s aunt lives. Once “the jewel of New York City housing projects,” says a neighbor, in the 1990s “the city brought in a lot of people who had no business being here. Drugs came in, gangs, things happened here that you never read about in the newspaper.” The lingering distrust engendered by residents of Pomonok extends to Luke’s cousin Sean, dressed like a gangbanger (and played very well by Crenshaw). At the same time, Electchester’s own history is a mixed bag. An unexpected visit by Sean instills in the liberal Elena a brief dose of the fear that Electchester residents experienced routinely.
Kraaar’s play will be touring to all five boroughs. Yet, as interesting as the history is, it doesn’t really catch fire dramatically, with its overall “there’s good and bad everywhere” take on things. Then, too, Kraar’s scenes jump in time (back as far as Van Arsdale), so the momentum is broken. Only five weeks after moving in, Jason improbably wants to get out; Elena doesn’t. There’s inevitable sentimentality in the resolution, and ultimately the characters, though embodied by fine actors, take a back seat to a place and an idea.
Working Theater’s production of Alternating Currents plays through May 20 at Urban Stages (259 W. 30th St.) in Manhattan; May 16 in the Bronx; May 22-24 on Staten Island; and May 26 in Brooklyn. For detailed information and tickets, visit theworkingtheater.org.