The characters in some plays — generally the not-so-good ones — leave your consciousness almost as soon as you leave the theater. Others stay a while, or never leave at all. I’m confident that the three central characters in “Street Children,” an affecting and saucily funny new play by Pia Scala-Zankel, about transgender youth living on the harsh streets of New York in the 1980s, will remain with me for good. But also, given the dark turns their lives take, for not-so-good.
The play, a Vertigo Theater Company production at the New Ohio Theater, might be described as a dysfunctional family drama, that staple of American stages. But the family here is not blood-tied, rather a collection of young people who style themselves the “House of Diamonte” and compete in the vogueing balls that were, thanks to Madonna and the documentary “Paris Is Burning,” briefly in vogue a few decades back.
The ample cast occasionally strikes poses, and there is one exuberant dance break (spectacularly performed by Tamara Williams, who with Mj Rodriguez provided the choreography). But mostly the show concentrates on the scrappy lives of the characters, some of whom spend much of their time selling their bodies on a pier just off Christopher Street, once a seedy refuge for those on the fringe.
Jamie (Eve Lindley) and Angela (JP Moraga) pass their idle moments trading funny shade. When Jamie brags that her Upper East Side-chic look is “100 percent authentic,” Angela snaps back, “I know Chanel don’t take food stamps.” Presiding over their friendly fracas is Terrence (Victor Almanzar), whose conflicted sexuality — he cannot accept that he’s attracted to men — will become a dark theme in the play.
Despite their banter, all three are in fact in mourning for the “mother” of their house, Gina (Ms. Rodriguez), who was recently killed in brutal circumstances that are not clearly defined, but may be linked to her work as a prostitute.
At Gina’s funeral, Terrence lashes out at Gina’s married lover, Victor (Camilo Almonacid), when he sees that her identity has essentially been erased. Born male, Gina is laid to rest as Michael Santos, and the pictures adorning the coffin show him only in boyhood. (Ms. Rodriguez appears intermittently as a ghostly presence and in flashback.)
Although Angela, Terrence and Jamie share an apartment and take comfort in one another’s company, each is struggling with individual burdens. In a scene that’s as touching as it is painful, we see Angela, now dressed as a man and claiming to be working at the cosmetics counter in Bloomingdale’s, trying to make up to her younger sister, Lala (the excellent Yadira Guevara-Prip), from whom she has been estranged.
Further rejection by her sister leads Angela down a harrowing spiral of self-destruction, achingly rendered by JP Moraga (who is described in the program as a gender nonconformist). Ms. Lindley is no less superb as Jamie, alone among the characters in seeing a future for herself beyond the dangerous streets.
And Mr. Almanzar gives a performance electric with tortured feeling as Terrence, who secretly sneaks off to seek out sex with go-go boys at a club. An act of shocking violence lays bare the fury that boils inside him.
The director, Jenna Worsham, has elicited fine work from the entire cast, bringing alive a subculture that’s rarely explored with this compassionate detail. The gritty sets, by Angelica Borrero, dankly lit by Kate Bashore, evoke the bleak landscape of the pier, while the often witty and colorful costumes, by Bernat Buscato, define each character precisely, even the minor ones who skulk around the margins of the stage to provide atmosphere (sometimes, in truth, to the point of distraction).
Of course, by and large, attitudes have gradually evolved, for the better, toward transgender people. (See: the acclaimed series “Transparent” and the indie movie “Tangerine.”) But “Street Children” addresses with pinpoint emotional clarity how stigmatized, exploited and at risk transgender youth once were — and, particularly those from economically disadvantaged families or conservative cultures — sadly no doubt still are.