The multicultural collective LAByrinth has a history of helping nontraditional playwrights find their stage legs. Once in a while, someone like Bob Glaudini comes through with a play like “Jack Goes Boating,” premiered earlier this year, which pays off bigtime. But the scribe’s messy new work, “A View From 151st Street,” shows little of the originality that gave “Jack” its spark. Violence may be a way of life on these uptown streets, but it doesn’t make the one-note characters any more interesting or sustain them as they sleepwalk through a formless plot.
The best parts of Glaudini’s episodic piece are the moments when the characters visibly struggle to find words — or to put together those words they do know in some coherent way.
Delroy, the menacing dope dealer played with exacting verisimilitude by Craig “muMs” Grant, claims all he wants is to find his “beats” for the nails-in-your-skull raps he improvises while waiting for neighborhood junkies to shuffle up to his street corner. But with the support of a terrific trio (Andrew Emer, Nir Felder and Q) hanging on his every manic move, Delroy’s beats come easy. It’s language that eludes him, those words that will make a “rhyme chime,” and he keeps grabbing at them with itchy fingers.
There’s even more at stake when neighborhood cop Daniel (an understated Juan Carlos Hernandez) grasps at words. With a bullet lodged in his brain after an encounter with Delroy, Daniel has to relearn his mother tongue like a baby. Although the process is as painful for the audience as it is for him, one welcome bit of levity has Daniel acquiring a foreign accent from Mara (Marisa Malone), his blowsy Russian nurse.
Everyone who comes in and out of the neat little apartment Daniel shares with his long-suffering but uncomplaining wife Lena (Liza Colon-Zayas, with perpetually furrowed brow) expresses some kind of heightened interest in the English language. The strung-out crackhead Ray (Andre Royo), who’s pulling himself together while living in Daniel and Lena’s apartment, is hypersensitive about his foreign accent, while Monroe (Russell G. Jones), Daniel’s buddy on the force, is peacock-proud of his perfect grammar and elegant diction.
As schoolteachers, both Lena and Daniel’s sister Irene (Elizabeth Rodriguez) are especially aware of the many variations on the English language that determine social class for ghetto speakers. Irene makes the point with humor when, sitting down to grade papers at the kitchen table, she wryly observes, “Maybe of all the words there are, ‘nigga’ is not the best one to describe Bambi.”
It’s frustrating, though, to watch Glaudini dangle a theme and then dance away from it in the same way that he throws out plot threads and doesn’t bother to tie them together. Or the way he sets up character conflicts and then backs off before things get rough. But in the end, nothing is quite as boring as hanging on the corner with Delroy and waiting for something coherent to come out of his mouth.