“Jackson Heights 3AM: is a quirky, funny love letter to this fractious, multifarious region of Queens, one of the most diverse places on earth. Conceived of by director Ari Laura Kreith, it was written by an ensemble of writers and actors called Theatre 167, referring tothe number of languages spoken in the area.
The playis the result of years of interviews with EMT workers, transvestites, bar owners and other denizens. The result reminds you of what Times Square used to be like before it was Disney-ifed, for good or for ill.
The people in the play are all in some form of trouble. Sometimes it seems the trouble just comes from living in that part of the world and being up that late: the action takes place between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Transvestites dance at seedy bars, two young Desi women answer the phones at a car service. Cops walk the beat, medics in the ER at Elmhurst Hospital see stuff no one would believe, every single night. One tomboy, just 13, plays soccer in the streets with a bunch of boys while her mother tries to make ends meet.
All of the characters and their stories are linked, like that six degrees of separation game. Consider Lindi, played beautifully by Flor De Liz Perez. She’s in love with Mikhail (Sergey Nagorny), and the two of them want to run away to somewhere, like Maria and Tony in “West Side Story.” They have no money, but during a moment of chaos Misha finds a credit card.
The credit card belongs to Soma (Indika Senanayake), a resident at Elmhurst Hospital, who’s upset because her boyfriend Matthew (Nick Fehlinger, in one of a couple of roles) is moving away. Soma finds herself in a deli with the gentle Salim (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte), who calms her down by helping her play Lotto and by buying sandwiches for her and the other sleepless medical staff.
Salim knows Devaj (an achingly lovesick Rajesh Bose), one of the drivers from the car service, who’s in love with Adela (Arlene Chico-Lugo), the sweet and beautiful Ecuadorian girl at the bakery. She barely speaks English and the only Spanish he knows is what he’s picked up from overhearing it on the street. Adela also makes friends with Lindi. And so on.
Other notable performances are John P. Keller as a combative but tender-hearted drag queen, Neal Mayer as a gay cop fleeing from the conformity of Massapequa (the very name got a laugh in the audience), and Pablo (Ephraim Lopez), the young Hispanic man who befriends Mayer for a night. Another chap who wore little but a sports jacket and a jock strap was both hilarious and thoroughly menacing as yet another casualty who ends up in the Elmhurst ER.
Kreith admirably keeps the comings and goings of the big cast interesting. The set, designed by Michael Wilson Morgan, is basic, consisting of boxes and other simple props. Kimberly Dowd’s lighting is suitably muted, and Ben Rodman’s sound effects, of dogs barking or sirens howling, are spot on. Both light and sound capture the nighttime uneasiness of a neighborhood whose side streets are often disconcertingly dark and whose sounds can be jarring.
Georgie Landy’s costume design, of micro minis and sky high heels, both on men and women, of doctor’s coats and plain work clothes, also capture the neighborhood.
One quibble: the stage manager should arrange the seats so that the actors don’t block the audience’s view of the action. The play is performed in Queens Theatre’s little downstairs stage, and the reviewer sometimes had to crane her neck to see around the actor who was standing right in front of her and hiding what was going on in the performance area. Also, if the scenes could be listed in the program it would be easier to find out who played who, the better to shower praise upon them.
In the end, at 3 a.m. the characters gather together in an outburst of compassion, or curiosity, or both. The audience not only sees how huge this talented cast is, but how diverse. It’s not exactly “We Are the World” — the characters are too gnarly for that — but it’s hopeful and generous.
“Jackson Heights 3AM” will be at Queens Theatre till Feb. 5. Tickets are $18. Learn more at queenstheatre.org.