'Welcome to Arroyo's

A personal, charming, clever play with a hip-hop bent.

Six months ago, Kristoffer Diaz was an obscure young playwright with developmental workshops aplenty on his resume but not a single full production. Then, this past October, his pro wrestling-themed play, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” became the hottest ticket in Chicago, was slated for production at New York’s Second Stage (it opens there May 10), and last week was announced as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s only fitting, perhaps, that at this moment, a theater finally stages the world premiere of the first full-length work he wrote, “Welcome to Arroyo’s,” a personal, charming, clever play with a hip-hop bent, about a Puerto Rican brother and sister trying to make their way in the world after their mother’s death.

To its credit, Chicago’s American Theater Company had programmed “Welcome to Arroyo’s” prior to the success of “Chad Deity,” and this very fine production directed by Jaime Castaneda certainly begs the question of what exactly took so long for someone to produce it.

Yes, it feels like a first play; and no, it’s not as unique or surprising or layered as “Chad Deity” (few plays are). But this work demonstrates a genuinely honest voice, an energetic, playful theatricality, and a confident if still maturing grasp of solid storytelling rooted in character. It seems an ideal piece for regional theater second stages, with an ability to appeal to a younger audience without alienating existing subscribers.

“Arroyo’s” is set on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2004, where Alejandro Arroyo (an excellent Joe Minoso) has built a lovingly tended bar in the space where his hard-working mother ran a deli for 20 years. So far, though, customers haven’t taken to it, despite Al’s determination to treat each customer like royalty.

Meanwhile, his younger sister Amalia (Christina Nieves) — the artist to her brother’s entrepreneur — spends her days painting her name in graffiti, choosing to do so, with typical brash rebellion, on the wall of a police station.

Brother and sister both get unlikely romantic interests, Amalia with a cop (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) and Alejandro with a kooky young academic (Sadieh Rifai) looking to make a name for herself by tracing the history of a Puerto Rican woman she claims was an important pioneer in the history of hip-hop.

It’s clear from his thematic contemplations in “Arroyo’s” and “Chad Deity” that Diaz considers hip-hop as a form to be a genuine expression of America itself. He also makes a strong effort here to enliven his traditional narrative by incorporating hip-hop into the story, employing a two-man chorus of DJs (including GQ, one of the creators of “Bomb-itty of Errors” and “Funk it Up About Nothin’?”) to serve both as narrators and as friends hanging out with Alejandro at his bar.

It’s clever stuff, and although he is prone to youthful excess (“My mind would be blown,” says one DJ after a moment of revelation, “if I weren’t an omniscient narrator”), overall the two DJs successfully infuse energy throughout and keep the play proper from taking itself too seriously.

Those qualities — thoughtfulness combined with playfulness, nurtured in “Arroyo’s” and fully realized in “Chad Deity” — have deservedly removed Diaz’s obscurity and make him an extremely welcome voice in American theater.

Welcome to Arroyo's

American Theater Company, Chicago; 112 seats; $50 top

Production

An American Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Kristoffer Diaz. Directed by Jaime Castaneda.

Creative

Set, Keith Pitts, David Ferguson; costumes, Christine Pascual; lighting, Charles Cooper; sound, Rick Sims; projections, Rasean Thomas Davonte Johnson; production stage manager, Dana M. Nestrick. Opened, reviewed Apr. 19, 2010; runs through May 16. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Alejandro Arroyo - Joe Minoso Amalia Arroyo - Christina Nieves Lelly Santiago - Sadieh Rifai Trip - Jackson Doran Nelson - Gregory Qaiyum (GQ) Officer Derek - Edgar Miguel Sanchez
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