Streetwise, kinetic and solidly dramatic, “Prince of Broadway” is a convincingly character-driven tale set in a clandestine universe — the realm of stolen and/or counterfeit fashions that exists in the no man’s land of Manhattan’s West 20s. It isn’t a milieu one sees much of, not even while walking right through it. But helmer-co-scripter Sean Baker makes us look — and care. Savvy marketing could lead to substantial arthouse play.
In a neighborhood of discount fragrance stores and cheesy T-shirt vendors, illegal immigrant Lucky (Ghanaian actor Prince Adu) steers budget-minded fashionistas past the storefront manned by an Armenian, Levon (Karren Karaguilian). There, a secret door opens onto a room full of knockoffs and hot handbags. Police are a constant threat; tourists are a pain.
But there’s an easy coexistence between the two men, whose very different apartments tell their stories: Lucky, who leads a rather footloose existence, has no furniture; Levon, unhappily married to a much younger woman, inhabits a garishly decorated, red-accented cave. Judging by the decor, their marital trouble may have more to do with aesthetics than with sex.
The real trouble starts when Lucky’s ex Linda (Kat Sanchez) comes by and drops off her infant son (Aiden Noesi). “He’s yours,” she snarls at Lucky, ordering him to take care of the boy for two weeks. Though in no position to care for a child, Lucky is basically a decent man, so social services isn’t called and diapers are purchased. Levon is even more decent, and has some idea how to take care of a baby.
Baker knows his ‘hood and his peeps, the rules of the streets, the way an inept alley fight goes down. It’s telling, the way Levon casually reassures a white customer before she goes into the back room with Lucky, and the way Lucky talks to the baby, as if the little guy were his 20-year-old roommate, is right on the money.
Acting isn’t always spot-on, and the dialogue, which was developed through improvisation (a la Mike Leigh), feels rough at times. There is perhaps too much time devoted to Linda, who might have worked better as a cipher; she’s irredeemable and thus a waste of time (although Sanchez does a good job making us hate her).
The kid is great, a serene presence when everything around him is dissolving into chaos. One shot Baker pulls off, framing the baby from the street, alone at a restaurant table as the waiter delivers the check, is perfect.
“Prince of Broadway” may be an immigrant story, but Lucky’s status is really an embellishment to a tale that might have been told under any circumstances and in a variety of settings.
Production values are rough-and-tumble, just as they should be.