CAMBRIDGE — The Circuit Theatre Company celebrates its fifth season with two plays in repertory at Club Oberon that are as different as night and day. While both gather a quirky collection of characters, “Welcome to Arroyo’s” unfolds as a funny, romantic triumph, while “The Walk Across America for Mother Earth” never manages to rise above a hot mess.
“Welcome to Arroyo’s” takes place in a former bodega-turned-lounge on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, run by the adult children of the bodega owner, who died just one month earlier. In addition to the newly orphaned lounge owners Alejandro (Dario Sanchez) and Molly Arroyo (Juani Feliz), we meet Trip (Caleb Bromberg) and Nelson (Fletcher Bell), two hip-hop mix-master wannabes who serve as Greek chorus, DJs, and comic foils. This hilariously loose-limbed duo provides musical as well as narrative transitions in this touching tale of family roots and new beginnings.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz, who wrote the masterful “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” creates believable characters and a realistic sense of place no matter how incongruous those elements are. Club Oberon is the perfect setting, as director Jen Diamond stages the action all around us, with the balcony serving as the Arroyo apartment above the bar, the club’s actual bar working as Alejandro’s home base, and the stage doing double duty encompassing the lounge’s DJ booth and the outside wall of the police station nearby.
While Alejandro is stuck on running the business the way his mother ran the bodega and Molly copes with her grief by tagging the police station wall with her spray-paint artistry, both are thrown off their game by outsiders. Newly minted police officer Derek (Justin Harris) is supposed to reprimand Molly but falls for her instead, and the academic research of Lelly Santiago (Gail Shalan) gives way to romantic feelings toward Alejandro. Lelly’s belief that the Arroyos’ mom was one of the first female hip-hop DJs provides a catalyst for the action, but Diaz, with deliciously deft strokes, refuses to provide a pat resolution to his play. The mix of pop-culture references, musical transitions, and comic moments written from the heart make a visit to “Arroyo’s” a must.
In “The Walk Across America for Mother Earth,” Taylor Mac (“The Lily’s Revenge”) takes an offbeat look at a band of misfits who strike out on a protest walk to shut down a nuclear test site in Nevada circa 1992. While Mac’s gift for poking a stick in the eye of convention gains its charm from his stylish characterizations, the performers in this production grab bits and pieces of character like scraps of costume without ever giving us a full sense of who these people are and why we should follow them on the march.
Director Christopher Annas-Lee never tempers the pacing or the intensity, so the show opens with characters ranting, marching, and shouting, and never lets up. The disintegration of ideals, the egotism, jealousy, and disillusion that overtake the group, are drowned out in the shrill shouting and endless parading around the audience. Thoughtful ideas about the mixed motives of people hoping to make social and political change, and the meaning of failure and success, are buried under the ridiculously scattered direction and performances. This 90-minute “Walk” seemed to go on for hours, and I cheered when it ended, but not for the right reasons.
THE WALK ACROSS AMERICA FOR MOTHER EARTH
Play by Taylor Mac
Directed by: Christopher Annas-Lee. Music, Ellen Maddow. Music direction, Linda Bard. Choreography, Aslan Moffit-Rolston.
Sets, Adam Wyron. Lights, Annas-Lee. Costumes, Anna Bodell.
Presented by Circuit Theatre Company.
At: Club Oberon, Cambridge, through July 27. Tickets: $15-$18. www.circuittheatre.com