The Benetton Bodega

Imagine an ethnically mixed inner-city neighborhood devoid of drug deals and drive-by shootings. Older residents leave their apartments without fear of getting mugged. Young black men are not harassed by police. And every morning in this urban enclave a Jew, a Chicano, and a black man gather in a corner grocery to schmooze over coffee about how often the storeowner's wife is going to call that day or whether to stock the shelves with more toilet paper. Welcome to the fairy-tale 'hood of King of the Kosher Grocers, now on-stage at Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.

In Chicano playwright Joe Minjares's 1991 valentine to Minneapolis's Near North Side, Jewish market owner Izzie Silvers (Manfred Orbach) holds court in the place he's run for 50 years. Tired and not in the best of health, the former undisputed ruler of the neighborhood's kosher establishments sells more tortillas these days than he does rye bread. He can't make ends meet, but he refuses to succumb to the economic pressures and close up shop. After all, the store provides a home away from home for his best friends A Elvis Mooney (Mark Branche), who is black; and Joe Chavez (Walter Zukovski), a Chicano A as well as a stock-boy job for Elvis's grandson Jamar (Bryan Ferguson), who is supporting himself while in college. When a sourpuss inspector (Kathleen Emrich) gives Izzie 30 days to fix the store's dilapidated electrical system, the shopkeeper doesn't have the cash to cover the repairs. Don't fret. Though Izzie resists it at first, help arrives in the form of several convenient plot twists and Jamar's ideas for modernization. The day is saved.

On a certain level, King offers a welcome departure from the dominant images of poor communities as places of misery and dissension; every portrait of life in the ghetto need not be violent or depressing. Minjares's depiction of generational conflict, rather than racial discord, among a group of ethnically diverse characters proves refreshing. By infusing the character of Jamar with entrepreneurial zest, the playwright defies the stereotype of black teenagers lost to drugs and crime. And through Izzie, Minjares tries to give voice to an endangered species: the owners of mom-and-pop stores, those small business enterprises that have been superseded by superstores and mall-based chains in recent years. Unfortunately Minjares skips along the surface of his potentially interesting subject matter; he prefers sentimental reminiscing about the old days and head shaking about newfangled ways to asking hard questions about loneliness, aging, cultural change, and success in a hostile world. As a result he produces a dull first act that could easily be compressed into one scene, and a second act that, although livelier, suffers from a series of facile resolutions, each of which comes as no surprise.

Under Gordon McConnell's direction (with assistance from Brian C. Smith), the actors labor through act one, providing likable but undistinguished performances, with the notable exception of Ferguson's. As Jamar, the actor exhibits flashes of spirit and rage that set the stage for an immensely exciting opening to act two. If you're still awake after intermission, prepare to be rewarded by an exhilarating dance number. Ferguson and Romeo Ballantine (as Jamar's friend Billy) part break dance, part hip-hop across the floor of Silvers's Market in the early morning, before the old-timers arrive. Watching the energetic actors in this deftly staged sequence (choreographed by Tabatha DeMercado) may just be worth the price of admission. Ballantine's comic turn as cool dude Billy, constantly bopping to internal music, animates the rest of the act.

Jay Tompkins's carefully detailed set conveys an element of realism missing from a script riddled with Hallmark-card emotions; you can practically smell the dust in the air of Izzie's gray-walled shop, its counters and shelves stocked with what appear to be week-old oranges, stale chips, and well-thumbed magazines. In a neat between-the-scenes transformation of the old shop into the new one, Tompkins reveals a store updated by Jamar through yellow paint, neon lights, an electronic door chime, and video rentals.

Joe Minjares, a 47-year-old comedian-actor-restaurateur who hails from Minneapolis, brings a generous dollop of affection to King of the Kosher Grocers, his first foray into play writing. (According to the production's program notes, he's working on a second offering about a Mexican family's journey to live in Minnesota.) McConnell and Smith direct the Off Broadway production with an equal measure of affection. Alas, affection alone, without believable conflict, challenging resolutions, or sharply wrought language, does not make for bracing drama.

Stage Notes
San Francisco-based actress-writer Marga Gomez, born in Harlem to a Cuban comic and a Puerto Rican nightclub dancer, dubs herself an "exotic comedian." An original member of the Latino comedy group Culture Clash and a former member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Gomez's performance style blends capricious characterizations, wry social commentary, and sexual politics. She's entertained audiences on HBO's Comic Relief VI and opened for musicians k.d. lang, Linda Ronstadt, and Los Lobos. Now she brings Memory Tricks, her first full-length theatrical monologue, to Miami Beach, courtesy of Miami Light Project's seventh annual Contemporary Performance series.

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