Located between Avenues A and B, the Metropolitan is embedded in the constantly evolving East Village, a fact which gave rise to the Artistic Director Alex Roe?s decision to commission a collection of brief plays that, one way or another, reflect the realities, past and present, of the changing neighborhood.
The Metropolitan produces its first group of what it termed ?East Village Chronicles? about a year ago, and now the group, following an admirable production of George Bernard Shaw?s ?The Devil?s Disciple,? is back with the slightly awkwardly titled ?East Village Chronicles Volume 2?, composed of two evenings, dubbed, respectively, ?Series A: the First Generation?, and ?Series B: the Second Generation.? The two sets of plays will be performed, in approximate alternation, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 12.
As though the programs weren?t already burdened by sufficient nomenclature, ?Series A? bears the subtitle ?4 Stories of the Prime Movers?, while ?Series B? is trailed by the words ?4 Stories of the Next.?
Each bill offers a quartet of plays with a kind of literary thread bridging them and unifying the sketches into a brief, intermissionless performance, with ?Series A?, directed by Derek Jamison, clocking in at just a minute or so over an hour and a half, while ?Series B? calls it a show after a swiftly-paced seventy minutes.
As the titles and subtitles may suggest, ?A? concentrates in early East Village arrivals, while ?B? is dedicated to their progeny, fortunate and otherwise, bringing the area?s history, more or less, into the present day.
Solid as Roe?s idea is, its execution is, to quote a lyric by Ira Gershwin, whose family once lived in the neighborhood, ?a sometime thing?.
The ?glue? linking the four brief plays which comprise ?Series A: the First Generation,? is Walt Whitman?s familiar poem, ?Crossing Brooklyn Ferry?, read simply and earnestly by Scott Phillips, who appears and reappears between the playlets, and, finally, has a significant role in the one which closes the bill.
The four emigrant groups that inspire the sketches in ?Series A? are the Italians, the Irish, the Ukrainians and the Cubans.
Writer Anthony Pennino, who is something of a fixture at the Metropolitan Playhouse and is represented in both programs, leads off with a slightly awkward piece he calls, ?A Comedy of Little Italy?.
A wildly gesturing Commedia figure, Harlequino (Rob Pedini), acts as a sort of go-between in the troubled romance of Antonio, a shoe-maker and Nunziata, recent arrivals from Sicily who turn out, as the play progresses, the playwright?s own grandparents. They are played convincingly by Aaron Munnoz and Melanie Rey.
The Irish influx on the Lower East Side, particularly in the area formerly known as Five Points, is represented by ?The Irish Melodrama?, by Travis Stuart, who uses the pen name Trav S. D.
Previously represented at Metropolitan by ?The Exploitation of Joice Heth?, his new contribution comes across as pure farce of a rather crude sort, despite being advertised as ?melodrama.?
A character addressed as ?Da? is played by a woman (Barbara J. Spence) who turns up later as ?Ma? and as a ?Barfly?, (and who soon does better work in the Ukranian playlet.)
The Irish sketch, like the Italian number which went before it, concerns an unfortunate romantic alliance involving ?Mary, played by a man, Alberto Bonilla, (who also does vastly better work later as a restless young Cuban in the final piece. In the Irish sketch, he is burdened by a blonde wig for an opera by Richard Wagner, a prop he endures with what appears to be at least a dollop of good sportsmanship.)
Also in the Irish play, albeit briefly, are actors Pedini and Munnoz, as, respectively, ?Danny? and ?Tommy.?
?Ukranian Blues? by Saviana Stanescu has the virtues of brevity and a certain authenticity, dropping as it does, names of familiar Lower East Side restaurants, such as Kiev and Veselka, not to mention the ethnic dishes they serve.
In Stanescu?s play, an immigrant daughter (actress Rey again) confronts her more recently arrived mother (actress Spence once more) with her lesbianism, and of her desire to have her partner move into the cramped flat which, when the lever arrives, will no longer have room for the older woman.
The play which closes ?Series A: The First Generation,? Adrian Rodriguez?s ?Floating Home?, is a sincere but slightly muddled study of an unhappy Cuban newcomer (Bonilla, in good form) who is contemplating a probably doomed return to his homeland, by way of a crude wooden raft, a few inner tubes and a length of rope.
Abel, the youth, has visions, or perhaps memories, of his parents, Ramon and Rosa, who appear to have remained in Cuba. They are rendered, more of less suitably, by Munnoz and Rey, with the letter emerging as a graceful dancer.
Rodriguez? plot turns on the arrival of Abel?s brother, Juan, as argumentative as he is Americanized, and played with force by that Whitman reader, Scott Phillips.
?Floating Home,? alas, really doesn?t float, much less go anywhere, or arrive at any ideological destination.
It does benefit, however, from the program?s best, most successfully unified cast, particularly as pertains to the eloquent Bonilla.
Both ?Series A? and ?Series B? are set, for the most part, in or near what was, early in the century, St. Mark?s German Lutheran Church, on East 6th Street, just off Second Avenue, part of a community known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
On June 15, 1904, the Church chartered an excursion vessel, the German Slocum, for the congregation?s annual picnic outing. The ship, of course, burned in the East River, near Hell Gate, killing 1021 individuals, most of them women and children who attended the church on East 6th Street.
The church eventually became an Orthodox Synagogue. Most of the surviving residents of Klein Deutschland left the Lower East Side, settling, for the most part, in Yorkville on the Upper East Side.