“Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd…” On the other hand, why not just head over to the 59E59 Theaters to enjoy what may well be more satisfying baseball than anything currently being offered up by the New York Mets or Yankees. Michael Mejias’ brilliantly conceived play, Ghetto Babylon, is directed with consummate skill by Gregory Simmons and peppered with young actors just as brilliant as the unique concept that propels this coming of age baseball adventure from beginning to end. Leading the charge is a young acting prodigy named Alejandro Rodriquez who gives a complex performance so riveting I would have to declare it, “Not to be missed.”
The action of this sandlot baseball saga takes place in 1982 on assorted Little League fields of the Bronx where a feisty team known as the Warriors is fighting its way to a hoped-for triumph in the Bronx-Wide Tournament of Champions as these rough and tumble teens give it their all in this, their final Little League season before heading off to high school.
A Julliard graduate with no shortage of prior acting credentials, the handsome young Mr. Rodriquez plays the team’s star pitcher, Charlie Rosa. At the same time he serves with exquisite skill as the play’s narrator, frequently stepping out of the action to intimately address the audience with such remarkable naturalness that we quickly find ourselves thinking of him as a close confidant. His ability to flawlessly deliver very lengthy passages of dialogue must have been a great asset when he recently played the lead in The Acting Company production of Romeo and Juliet.
But Charlie is much more than a neighborhood baseball star. A quietly sophisticated honor roll student, he is a budding intellectual whose only room décor consists of numerous “bookshelves” constructed of cardboard boxes and loaded with his countless literary classics from “Waiting for Godot,” to the guiding life force of his treasured and worn paperback of J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” No wonder that Charlie’s recently deceased mother had died with high hopes of her son escaping the Bronx ghetto with prep school acceptance at New Hampshire’s exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy.
That goal features secrets I will not include here lest I disclose too much, but it is worth noting that Charlie’s fondness for Salinger’s masterpiece causes him to often take an imaginary look at the world through the eyes of the Catcher (Andrew Schoomaker), who mystically appears from time to time to serve as a kind of guiding alter ego.
Fascinating intellectual aspects aside, much of the excitement in this clever play derives from the well-crafted atmosphere of real and rowdy neighborhood baseball games that are convincingly played out before our very eyes. How this is accomplished with a cast of just six talented actors (in an intimate in-the-round venue that probably seats no more than four dozen audience members) is part of the theatrical magic that must be seen to be believed. The athletic physicality of the players in action is convincingly realistic and sometimes even plays in slow motion. The audience senses it is sitting right behind the dugout, and of course there is plenty of the almost good-natured cussing and trash talking on the field as loud-mouthed players and fans try to intimidate opposing players. Some of my favorite examples of this South Bronx sass: “Your whole family smells like pee,” “You got a face like the back of a Nestles Crunch bar,” “Your mom is so ghetto she brushes her teeth with chicken wings,” not to mention, “You’re so dumb you think a quarterback is a new kind of welfare!” Of course there are occasional compliments too, as when our star pitcher excels and someone shouts, “You keep pitching like that and they’ll put your face on the Puerto Rican dollar bill!”
The core of our Warriors team is an inseparable trio of pals since childhood that includes Charlie, his cousin Felix (Malik Ali), and their buddy, Spec (Sean Carnajal). The realism and excitement these fine performers bring to the games that lead toward the championship are a tribute not only to their solid acting skills, but also to the imaginative and finely crafted script of Mejias. There is a kind of tender affection and Three Musketeers camaraderie between these boys that radiates at first warmth, and then later tension as that bond is threatened. These actors capture all those dynamics with such skill that we cannot escape caring deeply about both the characters they portray and the challenges they face.
Complicating matters is the gentle sweetness of Sarafina (beautiful Talia Morrero), a local girl who has caught the eye of more than one of the players, not to mention the eye of the neighborhood bully, “The Bobby,” (fiercely played by Rodney Roldan). As plot twists get complicated, Morrero’s performance brings an understanding and calming warmth to the character of Sarafina that results in memorably touching scenes between her and Charlie. And speaking of touching scenes, late one night when important decisions have to be made, Charlie lifts his spirit heavenward in an effort to communicate with his late mother for her advice: “Mom, I know you’re awake, because like me you keep strange hours…Are you gonna walk right through that door and tell me what to do?” I’ll have to remember that line. I lost my own dear mother just two months ago.
GHETTO BABYLON continues for a limited engagement through Sunday, August 18. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday & Saturday at 8:30 PM; and Sunday at 3:30 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $18 ($12.60 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.