Paul Hufker’s Birthday in the Bronx—directed by Michaela Escarcega—was inspired by the early life of the playwright’s partner, “Raquel.”
It’s the Reagan era, and the play’s 14-year-old protagonist, nicknamed Rocky (Suzelle Palacios), is a field hockey player of great promise. She plays, however, on the team of a poor Bronx school—an institution whose playing field is more mud than turf.
Rocky, who is Nuyorican, gets a chance for a scholarship at a well-heeled “white” school where she will have to live on campus and, despite the pointed warnings of her mother (Milagros Colón), she jumps at the opportunity. The move, however, turns out to be a disastrous one. Plagued with growing pains and second thoughts, Rocky finds herself quickly becoming a pariah. Though she appears to be a level-headed optimist, she succumbs to self-doubt. She also begins to sense that at least part of the opposition she encounters from her new schoolmates is rooted in prejudice against brown people like herself.
The basic story Hufker tells is rather simple and direct, and there are scenes with Rocky in which the dialogue seems quite realistic, but Hufker’s dramaturgical strategy is anything but straightforward. Lots of seemingly tangential things, some quite bizarre, are going on in the world Hufker has created.
For instance, there are major scenes involving a pair of excitable, fast-talking middle-aged sportscasters whose shows on radio and cable TV unaccountably follow the fortunes of our young protagonist. When LaBarrera (Evans Formica) and Kayster (Sid Ross) are not on the air, they fiddle with their elaborate miniature train set and talk about their imaginary town, Kayville. (The town is LaBarrera’s passion project, but Kayster is its designated mayor.)
The whole idea of running for and being a mayor is, in fact, a thematic obsession in the play. Apart from her athletic aspirations, Rocky harbors the idea of a political future. One of her roommates at the new school suggests at one point that she should go back home and become the mayor of the Bronx.
Birthday in the Bronx also has an obsession with lambs, and Hufker teases us here and there with the Christian symbology attached to such creatures. It seems the name Raquel means “ewe” and the sponsor of LaBarrera and Kayster’s sports show is Meyer Lamb Chops. Eventually an actual lamb shows up, having been dumped into a garbage bin, where it is rescued by Rocky. The animal is portrayed by an effective if somewhat creepy life-size puppet, designed by Sohn Plenefisch.
At times, however, the animal is represented by Colón, who wears what seems to be a woolen coat while holding the puppet and addressing the audience from the lamb’s point of view. At any rate, you’ll learn she is meant to be the lamb if you read the stage directions. Whether it’s apparent to the audience without such explanation is extremely doubtful.
A similar confusion hovers over the role (or roles) that actor Sigrid Wise plays. She portrays three of Rocky’s dorm mates at her new school—but trying to differentiate the characters of “Teeth,” “Lips” and “Hair” is not easy.
As if enough were not already going on in this play, Escarcega has interpolated into the mix some video scenes featuring interviews about the development of Birthday in the Bronx itself. In her program notes, the director tells of her misgivings about the production of a play centered on a Nuyorican female character but written by a non-Nuyorican, white male playwright. She explains that the creative team, “mostly people of color, came together to say that stories of us can be told without exploitation or saviorism.” The upshot of all this for the production is those video scenes, which show the upper bodies, but not the faces, of a man and a woman—apparently Hufker and the real-life adult Raquel, who field questions about white privilege, microaggressions, and other current cultural concerns.
If the show seems at times to be a bit of a mess, it’s an often entertaining and always lively one, thanks in good part to members of the acting ensemble, most of whom play multiple roles. Palacios is warm and winning as Rocky. Formica and Ross are engaging, especially when LaBarerra and Kayster have a falling out late in the play, which turns them from robust sparring partners into true foes. Colón and Wise also have plenty to do, and they seem game for all of it.
In addition to creating the intriguing lamb puppet and other props, Plenefisch designed the slightly surreal set, which features LaBarerra and Kayster’s aquarium-like studio booth upstage (and upstairs) center, with a second window beneath it, displaying the miniature train set—which is, unfortunately, too small and too far back to be seen clearly by all spectators. Oriana Lineweaver’s costume designs are just right for the characters. Good coordination between sound/video designer Anthony Sertel Dean and lighting designer Alex Vásquez Dheming adds to the production’s spirit of playful weirdness and unsettling absurdity.
This play may not be to everyone’s taste, but for fans of experimental theater with a sociopolitical edge, it could be just the ticket.
Birthday in the Bronx (through March 8, 2020)
The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, 1st Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thetank.com
Running time: 70 minutes without an intermission