As the play “I Like To Be Here” begins, Devaj and Adela are in love, although they have never spoken to one another. He is South Asian; she is South American and barely speaks English. He works as a cabdriver at night; she works in a bakery during the day. But they pass each other every morning to or from work in Jackson Heights. Finally, near the end of the play, he nervously offers her a mango.
Why does it take more than half the play to get to that introductory mango? The story of Devaj and Adela is just one story in a play so overstuffed that it’s evident even in the full title: “I Like To Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, Or, This Is a Mango.” The play is running at the New Ohio Theater in Greenwich Village through September 27th, as part of the 2014 Theater: Village Festival. Conceived by Theatre 167 artistic director Ari Laura Kreith, “I Like To Be Here” has seven authors, and 17 actors portraying 21 characters. It is the fourth play in four years about the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens by Theatre 167 – so named because there are said to be 167 languages spoken in Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse neighborhoods on earth.
Over the course of what’s supposed to be one night, we are introduced to not just Devaj and Adela, and their respective friends Salim and Lindi, but also:
Click on any photograph to see it enlarge
Angela, an office cleaner who moonlights as an exotic dancer, and her teenage daughter Alex, a tomboy who befriends Reina, a drag queen
Jim, a closeted cop from Long Island who meets, first, Leo, a ranting meth addict in a jockstrap, and then Pablo, with whom he goes home – where Jim is confronted by Pablo’s father, Mr. Mendez, who grills him on his culinary skills and the U.S. Constitution (Mr. Mendez is studying to take his citizenship test.)
Irene, an old Irish lady who refuses to allow her brother Eddie to sell her apartment, and whose dog drives her neighbor Emeterio to a criminal act.
Two beat cops
Two late-night car dispatchers
I’m leaving several people out.
All these stories unfold as the play progresses — and intertwine. I suspect that many of these characters in real life would have nothing to do with one another, even if they lived inches apart. But, despite some of the darker stories, the characters in this play interact and overlap as if they live on Sesame Street, or at least as if they all hang out at Cheers, and there’s a somewhat strained effort to bring them all physically together at the end. Still, the cross-pollination is at times rewarding. The most memorable scenes, besides those between Devaj and Adela, are when Reina takes a ride in Devaj’s cab, and when Salim (Devaj’s friend) offers an unusually detailed recipe for dosa bread (which includes nine steps, such as “Be born….” And “Fall in love…”) in order to help his friend Larry and Larry’s infant fall asleep.
“I Like To Be Here” has the feel of community theater. This is not meant as a snarky putdown, nor a comment on the acting, which is uniformly competent. (Most of the performers are members of Actors Equity.) It just seems as if the company’s emphasis is on the collaborative process, and its priority is to involve as many people, and tell as many stories from their neighborhood, as possible. To exclude any of the performers or the characters for the sake of dramatic coherence might feel to them like a betrayal of the community.
Theatre 167’s commitment to focusing on a single neighborhood strikes me as a sound idea, and in some ways an exciting one. Perhaps in a future piece they can return to just a couple of the characters in “I Like To Be Here” and….linger.