An array of snapshots more than any kind of narrative, I Like to Be Here—conceived by director Ari Laura Kreith, written by an ensemble of 7 playwrights, and performed by 17 actors in 21 roles—sets up archetypal characters in the polyglot, multi-ethnic community of Jackson Heights, Queens, with one hand and stirs them into less predictable situations with the other. There’s a Bangladeshi cab driver, Dev, and his friend Samir, who works in a cousin’s restaurant—who could easily be caricatures—but Dev yearns sweetly for an Ecuadorean baker with whom he does not share a language, and Samir confesses his ambitions and frustrations to Larry, a white hipster dad who brings his insomniac baby into the restaurant for a late-night frustrated beer. That white hipster dad, in turn, yearns to raise his daughter in the starrier, quieter streets of the Midwest—but his wife, Soma, a South Asian ER resident, thrives on the medical complexity of a large urban hospital, where she needs to speak three languages and bring in several more interpreters on any given night. Two white cops, Eddie and Sam, reflect their own prejudices back at the neighborhood residents—but at the same time, one of them is a more absent father than Mr. Mendez, the immigrant who worries that a gringo isn’t good enough for his gay son.
Through it all runs an undercurrent of romance, as couples meet and dream of love throughout the piece: not only Dev the cab driver and Adela the baker, but many others: There’s Lindi, a sex-trafficked Mexican prostitute and her client/lover, Mikhail, who also works in a local apartment building inhabited by another character: Irene O’Connor, who represents the “old neighborhood” with its Irish roots. There’s Gita, an overnight dispatcher at Dev’s car service, and her mystery caller, who turns out to be the Korean video-store owner; Joe, a closeted Long Island cop, and Pablo, a Latino club kid with a doting father. There’s even a glimmer of budding friendship between Colombian single mother Angela and Sean, a local Irish kid grown up to be a suit-wearing would-be real-estate mogul trying to get his aunt (Irene) to move out of her home.
It’s no surprise that Lindi dreams of Disneyland, refiguring her Misha as a prince who’s come to take Cinderella away. With so much going on, each story is of necessity stripped down to its simplest outline, giving a fairy-tale or allegorical quality to most of the narrative threads. The piece is most interesting when those threads don’t connect into a larger picture with a simplified (though not necessarily happy) ending: when Reina (Jerreme Rodriguez, who also plays Misha), a drag queen in a gown and tiara, tells her cab driver about her childhood obsession with her local “coffee queen” pageant. When Salim (Azhar Khan) lulls his friend’s baby to sleep with his life story woven through a dosa recipe. And, most of all, every time the weirdest, yet somehow most vibrant, character, Leo (J. Stephen Brantley, who also plays the more restrained Joe and is one of the playwrights), enters the scene: a meth addict whose bad date has turned into a night roaming the streets, dripping blood from an injured hand and crossing paths with most of the other characters, including the cops.
Despite the troubles that bubble through most of the characters’ lives—a killed dog, an accident, a deported father—the show, which is presented as part of the second annual Theater:Village festival, has an overall sweetness and an optimistic view of the city that are endearing, even uplifting. Some of the writing, though, feels too simplified; the breadth of the piece crowds out fine detail. Some striking moments stand out, but the whole ends up seeming more like an elegant experiment than a satisfying whole.