Theater review: ‘Welcome to Arroyo’s’ at the Old Globe

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More party than play, Kristoffer Diaz’s “Welcome to Arroyo’s” is a sweet, loose-limbed shout out to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, now at the Old Globe. With a Greek chorus of DJs who “mix” the play right in front of us, “Welcome” shows that hip-hop can still goose mainstream theater instead of merely filling the diversity slot.

Just the sight of designer Takeshi Kata’s sleek bar setting in the intimate, in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre makes you feel like ordering a cocktail instead of reading the program. The show’s exuberant vibe becomes so infectious, it’s easy to forget this is a story about two siblings recovering from the recent death of their only parent. The real event on stage is a young writer trying out his game, weaving in and out of storytelling strategies to find the ones that feel true to him.


But back to our story. On the site of his late mother’s old bodega, the introspective Alejandro (Andres Munar) opens the best lounge in the hood. It just doesn’t have any customers — a minor problem pointed out by Trip (Wade Allain-Marcus) and Nelson (GQ), two mix masters in search of a gig. Meanwhile, Alejandro’s brash sister, Amalia (Amirah Vann), can’t be bothered with a job: she’s a budding graffiti artist, which leads to a meet cute with a young beat cop, Officer Derek (Byron Bronson).

Enter suburban college girl Lelly (Tala Ashe), who thinks the Arroyos’ mother might have been the mysterious Reina Rey, purported to be one of hip-hop’s originators. Lelly tracks down Alejandro for some fact checking, but her interest in the family quickly becomes more than scholarly.

These budding romances and fragile alliances are the subject of frequent commentary by the DJs, who at one point “rewind” an encounter between Alejandro and Derek to review the details of their conversation. Treating a scene like a DVD commentary demonstrates the kind of offhand irreverence that makes this writer so appealing.

Diaz, who burst on the scene with the Pulitzer-nominated “Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” is telling an origin story here — hip-hop’s and his own, an emerging playwright straddling class and language. That makes for some great and tiresome moments. Do we really need beatboxing explained to us? Who is Alejandro and what does he want? And what exactly is Lelly doing in this play? Television will come calling for Diaz: Let’s hope he uses a great cable show to hone his sense of structure, character development, and narrative focus.

In the meantime, enjoy the writer’s sharp ear for idioms (“His jaw scraped the ground like a cheap muffler”) and his light dance with pop culture. (Check out the DJs doing a Steve Irwin handshake.) Some of the jokes feel instantly dated — “He got the place cleaner than a Justin Bieber CD” — but the younger members of the audience didn’t mind. Actually, neither did the older members.

Under Jaime Castañeda’s deft direction, the performances feel fresh and immediate. Vann impresses as the fiery Amalia, hilariously unapologetic; her monologue about how her family resolves conflict is one of the play’s strongest. Ashe does her best with a pile of cultural studies jargon, the show’s most awkward element. Allain-Marcus and GQ, with their droll play-by-play observations punctuated by music and sound effects, have a terrific rapport with each other and the audience. (Matthew Richards’ percussive lighting and Aaron Rhyne’s projections also help maintain the play’s rhythms.)

Alejandro hopes his lounge will become “a community center for adults, with alcohol,” and by the end of the story, Diaz grants the young man’s wish. In “Welcome to Arroyo’s,” the playwright creates a space for all audiences, young or old, of any color, to kick back and play. Now that we’ve all been stamped, let’s stay and see what this fresh prince does next.

--Charlotte Stoudt

“Welcome to Arroyo’s.” Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee Oct. 16); 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 31. $29-$67. Contact: (619) 234-5623 or Running time: 90 minutes.