Starting with the title, this play is upfront, immediate, and in your face. It’s very much a play about New Yorkers, several of them Puerto Ricans. It’s not about Wall Street, but about a small-time drug dealer, Jackie, who has just gotten out of prison and is trying to stay sober, get a job, and get on with his girlfriend.
The care and attention paid to the set really enhanced the show. Off to the side, a drummer plays. Drums are central to Puerto Rican music and dance (catch local musician and musicologist Sal Ferraras if you possibly can sometime) and this extra touch really enhances the feel of the play.
My fellow attendee and I were trying to figure out the time period in which the play is set. The musical references are 1970s, but the hair is 1980s. This was a time before rampant gentrification in New York for sure. The graffiti on the set reminded me of street art I saw in Bushwick last summer.
An almost offhand reference to Tony Orlando’s music dredged up a memory from the past. I remembered his heartwarming song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”, from my childhood, so I looked it up. Somehow as a child, I had missed the fact that the song is about someone returning to his girlfriend after being in prison three years, a storyline that echoes the play, as Jackie is returning home after being in prison for 26 months upstate.
Jackie starts the play with a triumph, as he has just landed a job, and brings gifts to Veronica to celebrate. Things quickly sour when he sees an unknown man’s hat on the table. Matters escalate from there.
The play, to a large extent, is about Alcoholics Anonymous. Ralph is Jackie’s sleazy sponsor, who has years of sobriety but uses his clarity of mind to hurt others. Jackie loves his sponsor as a personal hero. In a clip I found online, though, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is clear that he is not attacking AA itself, which he believes to have saved the lives of many.
The play is breathtakingly funny thoughout, even if you feel a bit guilty for laughing at times. Campy cousin Julio is alternately wise and ridiculous. Jackie’s girlfriend Veronica has striking moments of clearness while struggling with addiction. Ralph’s wife Victoria is beaten down, but remembers who she should be. Jackie is impulsive, but he has a clear sense of moral direction despite the life he has led. Ralph is the type of sleazy guy who can command loyalty and always surprises outsiders when they see that.
(Stephen Logo as Jackie, and Francisco Trujillo as Julio. Photo credit: Emily Cooper)
All of the characters are struggling with addiction and how to make a life apart from addiction. Hope never dies, although the future may not look too rosy.
This play is described as a “verbal cage match”, and the pace never flags. It’s an intense 100 minutes. But I expect this might be the most riveting play I see this year, and it’s only January.
(Cover image photo credit: Dan Rizzuto)