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A CurtainUp Review
Ghetto Babylon

"I don't believe in change, not really. As far as I can see, shit don't be changin' in the Boogedy-Boogedy. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not sayin' people won't get dead. I'm just sayin' it'll be the same, just with different mofos up in here."— Spec
This production of Michael Mejias' Ghetto Babylon could probably fit in a generously sized closet. The theater at 59E59 where it's currently having its run is not much bigger. It makes remarkable use of a tiny space, but it is practically bursting at the seams with heart, wit and authenticity. It deserves a greater audience.

The year is 1982 and it's summertime. Charlie Rosa (Alejandro Rodriguez) is faced with a choice that kids have been making in stories about baseball since the dawn of time: show up for the Big Game, or attend some equally compelling yet conflicting event. In this case, it's orientation for Phillips Exeter Academy. For Charlie, this is a pretty big deal, considering he, like his cousin Felix (Malik Ali) and his best friend Spec (Sean Cavajal), lives in the housing projects in the South Bronx, where scholarships to fancy boarding schools don't usually just fall out of the sky.

Naturally, Charlie has forces pulling him in opposite directions. There are his friends, who equate Charlie's potential departure with nothing less than an ultimate betrayal. And then there's Sarafina Santos, Charlie's downstairs neighbor and love interest, who, though increasingly attached to the sensitive, bookish young man, sees him destined for life beyond the Boogie Down. And then there's Charlie himself, dedicated to his friends and teammates, but also very much inclined to accept the scholarship, a dream that his now- deceased mother long harbored for him as a way to "get out" of the Bronx.

While the specifics of this choice may be more convenient for the plot than they are realistic, the symbolic significance of Charlie's dilemma is palpable. It's a choice, in a sense, between childhood and adulthood. Moreover, it's a choice between the mindset, articulated by Spec, that "the sun won't ever change what goes down in the Boogedy," and one that embraces the possibility of long-shots, no matter how unlikely.

There's something about Ghetto Babylon that make it feel like it could have been made 60 years ago, the American sort of play, like Our Town, that one might be happy watching at a high school, even if the performances were shoddy and the set were falling apart.

But make no mistake: While the 59E59 production is cramped, the performances are nowhere near amateur. As Spec, Carvajal is explosive, like a fastball flying from a pitcher's arm -- and often the genesis of the show's biggest laughs. Ali is more even-keeled as Felix, and the on-stage friend chemistry he creates with Rodriguez is as natural as the fit of an old mitt. And it's hard not to fall a little in love with Talia Marrero's Sarafina Santos, who plays the girl-next-door type with equal parts sass and sweetness.

While Ghetto Babylon won't win any awards for achievements in experimental theater, it's a testament to Mejias' skills as a writer that a plot that seems so familiar can still feel so fresh. We know the decision Charlie is ultimately going to make, we know why he's going to make it, and yet the whole process is still, somehow, thrilling. It might have something to do with Mejias' talent for pacing, and for breaking up the linear narrative for greater dramatic effect (which only occasionally gets confusing).

It also helps that he's made such a charming character in Charlie, who, played by Rodriguez with a shoulder-shrugging nervousness and self-effacing likeability, reminds one of Neil Simon's character, Eugene Morris Jerome. He's also got a few things in common with Holden Caulfield -- no coincidence, considering J.D. Salinger's iconic protagonist actually makes an appearance in this play as the voice of Charlie's conscience (Andrew Schoomaker).

The director, Gregory Simmons, deserves credit here for pulling the whole thing together, especially managing the movement on Brian Ireland's sparse but practical set. With little more than a bench, a bookshelf and a green square, Simmons manages to evoke a baseball mound, a dugout, a room, and a rooftop. And he keeps the characters moving, pivoting the direction of the action from scene to scene to give the audience, broken up into two opposite-facing sections, a chance to see different perspectives.

Ghetto Babylon is utterly without affectation. It's simply a great show superbly acted, and it's time to open up the clubhouse doors and let the world see it. Play ball!

Ghetto Babylon
Written by Michael Mejias
Directed by Gregory Simmons
Cast: Malik Ali (Feix Peralta), Sean Carvajal (Spec), Talia Marrero (Sarafina Santos), Alejandro Rodriguez (Charlie Rosa), Rodney Roldan (TheBobby), Andrew Schoomaker (TheCatcher)
Set Design: Brian Ireland
Lighting Design: Porsche McGovern Cottle
Sound Design: Ted Pallas
Costume Design: Jennie West Alexander
Production Stage Manager: Nikki Castle
Production Manager/Technical Director: Drew Francis
Running Time: 180 minutes with an intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022 (212) 753-5959
Beginning 8/1/2013, opening 8/7/2013, closing 8/18/2013
Performance times: Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
Ticket cost: $18
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at 8/11/2013 performance.
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