Enjoyable evenings of theater are common, and more than adequate. Rarer, however, are the what-the-fuck plays, those experiences that explode instead of unfold, that follow us home and slap us upside the head while we’re trying to sleep. These are playwright Bruce Graham’s specialty.
Graham is in the midst of a rich and prolific period of work — he’s had an impressive output of quality and quantity over the past five years, including recent Barrymore-winners Something Intangible and Any Given Monday, Jefferson Award-winner The Outgoing Tide and last summer’s Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown. Nevertheless, taking nothing away from those plays, he’s eclipsed them all with North of the Boulevard, premiered by Theatre Exile.
This harrowing drama — infused with Graham’s trademark earthy humor, which in the first act is more outrageous and profane than ever — confronts the vanishing middle class, slowly being squeezed out of existence by a down economy and widespread corruption.
It’s December 2008, and Trip (Scott Greer, who, like Graham, hits new heights here) is watching his life crumble like the wall of his struggling independent garage, which has a rogue tree growing through it. (Matt Saunders’ set ironically reverts Exile’s Studio X in South Philly back to its prior incarnation as a garage, complete with a partially disassembled Nissan Sentra center stage.) With his work troubles and all his other woes — disgruntled wife working retail, son beat up by black toughs at school, customers who don’t pay — Trip still believes in working through “proper channels,” which lead nowhere.
Three friends, drawn with quirky detail by Graham and convincingly portrayed, offer solutions. Freeloading senior Zee, played by too-seldom-seen actor Bill Rahill, rails against the world while indulging in Trip’s booze. Early on, the most outrageous lines are his: “Butchy would crawl over his mother’s casket,” he says of a late local politician, “to fuck his sister.” His succinct political views: “I’d let Palin blow me.”
More brews than laughs, however. Trip’s best friend, Bear (Lindsay Smiling), is a black security guard who distrusts the recently elected Obama, and fears that he’ll soon be assassinated. Brian McCann plays Zee’s hapless son Larry, a nurse who can’t live up to his late brother’s success, in a startling performance from an actor who usually plays erudite Brits.
All three are fueled by escape schemes: thoroughly fuck-it cynic Zee drifts into dreamland on the perfume of a stripper’s used thong; Larry wants to run for mayor and bust the corrupt regime; Bear hopes to score some quick getaway money through a cache of McDonald’s Monopoly game pieces. Trip’s dream of moving just a few miles away to a safer and cleaner neighborhood north of the boulevard (as this is set in Northeast Philly, that’s Roosevelt Boulevard) requires either a windfall or the sacrifice of his independence for a Pep Boys position.
These fascinatingly real and rough characters’ bickering and twitchy frustration builds comically through the first act, then Graham gut-kicks us right before intermission (no spoilers here). Matt Pfeiffer’s well-tuned production shifts into a new gear, as circumstances offer a fresh, crazy but finally plausible get-out-of-hell opportunity. Trip’s innate nobility emerges — “it’s not right,” he protests, those three words bearing a lifetime’s faith — but a no-strings-attached payday is hard to resist.
A powerfully real debate emerges. Can poor and desperate people afford a conscience? Is revenge our right, or does it turn us into our oppressors? Can we ever grow beyond racial fear? Are we doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes? It’s not some egghead discussion, however; these characters face life-and-death decisions and a ticking clock, an exciting and expertly orchestrated dramatic situation. The both inevitable and frustrating resolution makes North of the Boulevard a play that sticks in the head, the heart and the gut long afterward.
Through May 19, $32-$37, Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St., 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.
First Friday Focus: Camden up close, prejudice in photography and "skate of the art" installation
+ GRAVY STUDIO & GALLERY Vice named Gabriel Angemi, a city firefighter, its favorite street...
The Way Women See It: Reviewing "The Lady From the Sea"
EgoPo Classic Theater may be Philadelphia’s most intellectually bracing company. Artistic...
Painting the Town: Artists' views on Northern Liberties' changes
There’s a sort of privilege in listening in on the conversation between Ira Upin, Jennifer Baker,...