For the first 30 minutes of Welcome to Arroyo’s, it’s clear why playwright Kristoffer Diaz is a white-hot commodity. Not unlike his The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity—a Chicago hit and 2010 Pulitzer finalist—the play throws you into a whirling mix of hypercharged fable, metatheatrical commentary, and after-hours hip-hop party, all while exploring questions of ethnic and political identity. Especially as performed by the fiery cast of this American Theater Company production directed by Jaime Castañeda, Welcome to Arroyo’s initially feels vibrant, unpredictable, and bracingly contemporary. Audiences in the mid-1960s must’ve felt a similar thrill seeing the early plays of Sam Shepard, as he harnessed the erratic, erotic power of rock ‘n’ roll to investigate the American mythos.
But somewhere in the middle of act one Diaz’s elaborate theatricality begins to feel forced. It becomes harder and harder to ignore that his story is inconsequential and unlikely, and Welcome to Arroyo’s starts looking like what it is: a first play, written while Diaz was still in college. If ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli is correct when he gushes that this script represents “the future of American theater,” then American theater is headed off a cliff.
The play is set in 2004 on New York’s Lower East Side, where 24-year-old Alejandro has inherited his recently deceased mother’s bodega and turned it into a bar, insisting—despite the pleas of employees Trip and Nelson to turn it into a hip-hop lounge—that Arroyo’s will be a plain, old-fashioned watering hole.
Alejandro’s headstrong, belligerent 18-year-old sister, Amalia, tags the local police station and fancies herself an artist. Emotionally closed off since her mother’s death, she can’t admit she’s developed a crush on Officer Derek, the terminally insecure beat cop. Meanwhile Lelly, a former neighborhood misfit who “escaped” to college to study cultural history, thinks she’s discovered that Alejandro’s mother was a seminal but now forgotten hip-hop DJ in the late 1970s. She needs Alejandro’s help to confirm her theory. In one of Diaz’s most successful conceits, DJs Trip and Nelson function as a kind of Greek chorus of Shakespearean fools, both narrating the story and ridiculing it.
By intermission, there are plenty of unresolved questions, but none of them is particularly urgent. Will Arroyo’s ever get more customers? Will Trip and Nelson spin there? Will Amalia let her guard down and go on a date with Officer Derek? Will she find an outlet for her art? Will Lelly publish her research? No one has much to lose no matter what happens.
Diaz isn’t writing about broad geopolitical issues here, as he did in Chad Deity. He’s concerned with a tight little community. But the narrow scope doesn’t seem to have helped him keep things honest. On the contrary, events grow increasingly implausible. Lelly acts like telling Alejandro that his mother might’ve been a DJ is tantamount to telling him she was a mass murderer. The only way she can broach the subject is by nailing a four-page essay to his door and running away. Reading Lelly’s impenetrable academese inexplicably makes Alejandro think she might have good ideas about bringing customers into his bar. Officer Derek gets coldcocked by Amalia—twice—and does nothing. And everyone seems convinced that opening a hip-hop lounge on the Lower East Side would be a radical concept. In 2004. Long before the play ends, it’s impossible to buy almost any of it.
Perhaps most disappointing of all is the facile anti-intellectualism Diaz employs to bring Lelly’s story—and, by extension, that of the community—to a happy resolution. Lelly decides that in order to achieve an authentic ethnic identity she must give up her academic work and become one of the “regular folks” hanging out at Arroyo’s. Diaz, who holds not one but two MFAs, is smart enough to know that it takes all kinds to make a community thrive.