'Till the Break of Dawn'


Special to Newsday

September 14, 2007

The arrival of a fresh theatrical voice is cause for celebration, even when that voice squeaks a bit in its upper registers, drops a few notes at the bottom and doesn't know when to shut up. And Danny Hoch doesn't qualify as a newcomer: "Some People," the multi-character solo show that made his name, bowed at the Public Theater in 1994.

Still, with his bustling, slightly overstuffed new play "Till the Break of Dawn," Hoch comes on with the force and ambition of a brand new playwright who commands attention. At its best, this is a cathartic, full-service entertainment for urban progressives who've felt adrift and embittered in the post-9/11 era.

The play begins just before that historic cataclysm, as a group of New York-based activists travel to Havana for a hip-hop festival funded by the Cuban government. Hoch gently sets up the troupe's most idealistic foot soldiers -- the sensitive Web designer Gibran (Jaymes Jorsling) and the amusingly shallow, doctrinaire Hector (Flaco Navaja) -- for a reality check amid Cuba's post-revolutionary squalor. When they visit an exhausted, impoverished former Black Panther (Gwendolen Hardwick), one of the first things she says to them is, "Somebody gimme $20 so I can go get a pack of cigarettes."

Later, their white landlord (Jimmie James) barks his terms at them and demands $350 upfront. And a poor Cuban man (Luis Vega) who's learning English from jingles and hip-hop records cheerily addresses the nonplussed Gibran as "my neeger."

The others who come along for the ride -- a curator from the Bronx (pattydukes), a record producer, Adam (Matthew-Lee Erl.bach), a tightly wound schoolteacher, Robert (Johnny Sanchez), his skeptical girlfriend (Maribel Lizardo) and a dimwitted, roly-poly rap star, Big Miff (Dominic Colon) -- fall variously on the spectrum between commitment and compromise.

As such, they risk becoming signposts more than characters, but Hoch's mastery of point-of-view means that nearly all of them give as good as they get. A French rapper (Bambadjan Bamba), initially dismissed by the Americans, returns fire in a hilariously mean, vivid attack on all things McDonald's and Mickey Mouse. The sluggish Miff and the priggish Robert square off along class lines; Adam and Hector clash over race and revolutionary purity.

It's not all friction and fire: Gibran and Dana bond in a quietly moving, if inconclusive, pep talk about how to sustain the struggle.

Hoch's plot mechanics don't exactly throw off sparks, and he could afford to lose at least one plot thread and a few characters. Indeed, his first effort as writer-director of a two-act play is not entirely smooth or convincing. But there's enough wicked wit and clear-eyed insight here to make the flaws forgivable and to mark Hoch, once again, as a force to be reckoned with.

TILL THE BREAK OF DAWN. Written and directed by Danny Hoch. Presented by the Culture Project through Oct. 21 at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-352-3101. Seen Monday.