By Lynn Venhaus
With its energetic and appealing cast of six, and its earnest mission from a buzzy contemporary playwright, “Welcome to Arroyo’s” is a fine example of Tesseract Theatre Company’s commitment to fresh voices and perspectives.
It was written when the promising storyteller Kristoffer Diaz was in college but produced after his acclaimed 2009 play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Diaz incorporated an American Dream theme in this dramatic comedy about the wrestler Macedonio Guerra, and it also won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2011.
Here, Diaz focuses on dreams, stressing community and touching on family, art, grief, loss, and his Latino culture.
Underscored with a lively hip-hop beat, “Welcome to Arroyo’s” is set on New York City’s Lower East Side in 2004. Victor Mendez portrays with conviction the industrious Alejandro Arroyo, whose dream is to convert the space where his late mother ran a bodega/deli for 20 years into a neighborhood bar/lounge that could become a cultural hot spot, but so far, not going so well.
The hard-working Al is at odds with his younger sister Amalia, aka Molly, who is full of anger and rebellion, and spray-paints graffiti outside the 7th precinct police station. Remi Mark conveys her character’s agitation and how mad at the world she is.
She courts trouble, he wants a better life. They are both dealing with the loss of their mother and will meet people who result in changes in direction for them.
Her unexpected love interest? Derek, a rookie police officer who recently moved to the area. He’s nice to her when she is mean to him, and Marshall Jennings is effective playing the concerned guy trying to understand her.
Al’s romantic attraction is to Lelly, a quirky college student tracing the history of a Puerto Rican woman that played a big part in hip-hop music. Could their mother have been one of its founders? Based on her research, Lelly seems to think that 20 years ago, she was the first female hip-hop DJ. Hannah de Oliveira brings out Lelly’s passion for her work.
Two DJs, Nelson and Trip, are Alejandro’s pals who hang out at the bar, and act as narrators sharing this fangirl theory, tying it all together. Kevin Corpuz (Nelson) and Jacob Schmidt (Trip) are the high-spirited rappers devoted to getting the party started, and they succeed in engaging audience members, who are eager to follow their direction. Corpuz’ enthusiasm is always contagious, and their contributions are easily the most relatable aspect of the show.
While heartfelt, Diaz’s play, however, seems incomplete, and the characters aren’t as developed as they could be for us to really care about them and be drawn into the scenario.
Nevertheless, director Brittanie Gunn worked well with an exuberant cast of four men and two women who give their all to pull us into the narrative. There is much goodwill here for what they are trying to accomplish with this show and the people involved.
The main problem with staging at the .Zack is its challenging acoustics, which have been problematic since it opened, some more pronounced than others. On the plus side, Corpuz and Schmidt have individual microphones, and Mark is loud as Molly, but de Oliveira is, at times, hard to hear as Lelly, although she is animated in her performance. Usually, in Tesseract’s previous shows staged there, it wasn’t an issue, but the uneven sound detracts.
Diaz appears destined to be a powerful presence in American theater. Besides writing plays, he is an academic – an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has worked in television.
Diaz went on to write the book for “Hercules,” the stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by David Zippel, which was presented at The Public Theatre in 2019.
For television, Díaz adapted Jonathan Larson’s musical “Rent” into the 2019 live show on Fox and was the editor for Season 1 of “GLOW” on Netflix in 2017.
Tesseract gives this playful production a celebratory feel, and with its dedicated creatives, will likely continue its commitment to diverse talents and plays with something to say. And those are reasons to rejoice.
Tesseract Theatre Company presents “Welcome to Arroyo’s” April 28 – May 7, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust St., in Grand Center. For more information, visit the website: www.tesseracttheatre.com
This play contains adult language and themes.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.