BWW Reviews: Facing Moral Dilemmas in a Crumbling Garage - NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD at CATF
[Note: The Contemporary American Theater Festival each year produces five new American plays in Shepherdstown, WV (an hour and a half from Baltimore) Wednesdays through Sundays throughout July. This is a review of one of this year's productions. Each will be separately reviewed in this space.]
It is 2008. Trip's world is in full-fledged collapse. The garage he owns is facing competition from a new Pep Boys, his neighborhood is changing (African immigrants living across the street throw garbage on the lawn), his school-aged son has been badly beaten in a racially-motivated attack, and the principal of the school cannot be counted on to set matters to rights. A malevolent political boss has died, leaving Trip responsible to pay unrespectful respects. A tree, the last in the neighborhood, reportedly, has fallen and smashed through the wall of the garage. He has covered it over with an Obama campaign poster that bears the single word HOPE, an ironic choice in view of the essential hopelessness of the mostly white working-class denizens of his unnamed city. (I was thinking of Detroit when I saw the play, though the auto in the shop bore Pennsylvania plates, and playwright Bruce Graham is a Philadelphian.)
Trip (Brit Whittle) needs to get himself and his family "up north of the Boulevard," to a more civilized neighborhood, but has no means to do so. And his companions are equally trapped. Old man Zee (Michael Goodwin) hangs out at Trip's shop because no other business will allow him in the door; he's even been kicked out of McDonald's. Zee's son Larry (Jason Babinsky), a hapless-seeming young man, has an insane and risky plan to beat life's evident plan for him by running for political office against the machine, but he cannot manage to obtain a single signature on his candidacy petition. Security guard Bear (Jamil A.C. Mangan), the improbable African American member of the circle (improbable because companion Zee is odiously racist and because Bear himself adheres to right-wing political views), refers to a box full of McDonald's cups with Monopoly sweepstakes pull-off tabs as his 401(k) plan.
Then an unexpected circumstance dumps an opportunity in Trip's lap. The only problem is that, to take it, Trip would need to leave his integrity behind and possibly risk going to jail. Is getting north of the Boulevard worth it for Trip and his buddies? Does Trip even have a meaningful choice? These are the questions Graham's play poses, topical questions indeed in a world where the middle class is being hollowed out and the working class is being pounded.
As I've written elsewhere, at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, which is apparently giving this play its second outing, it becomes clear which plays are finished products and which still need more work, and this is definitely one of the "needs more work" variety. Act Two, where Trip's opportunity becomes clear and he and his colleagues have to decide whether they're going to risk taking it, works well. But Act One, by common consent of every attendee I spoke to, is a mess: too many negligible plotlines, too much exposition, too much chaos of characters talking over each other, too much information delivered obliquely. By the time the audience finds its sea legs, the act is over.
Bruce Graham shared with the crowd at a playwrights' forum that he had worked in standup comedy, and it shows in this material. There are lots of wisecracks, and the profane cynicism of the characters has a standup sensibility. For instance, Bear comments on a children's classic:
Winnie the Pooh. Not till you're an adult you realize how fucked up the 100 Acre Wood was. Ya got that donkey - what's his name -
Right. He's a fuckin' manic depressive. Piglet's got the shakes. Owl's got Alzheimers. Christopher Robin - he's a little light in the loafers with those shorts and everything. Tigger, man, he's got like ADD or somethin'. And Pooh's got a fuckin' eating disorder. I mean, kids think this is all so great - know what I'm sayin' - but that 100 Acre Wood was one fucked up place.
This is funny, all right, but it doesn't tell us much about Bear's personality, and it doesn't observably advance the plot or the theme. As it happened, not too long before seeing Graham's play, I'd attended a revival of The Odd Couple, which, though a bit dated, also has a strong helping of the same standup sensibility. But Neil Simon knows how to hitch the quips to the plough and use them to pull the play along. And as I watched Graham's work I could not help but wish that Graham when revising would emulate how the master does it. But just some work to clarify and declutter Act One will do plenty to help the play.
As always at Shepherdstown, there is absolutely nothing but good to say of the performances. Brit Whittle, who also has a variety of very different roles in another CATF play this season, brings a weary but possibly limited decency to the role of Trip. Jason Babinsky, who is also to be seen doing something completely different in that other play, makes the most of portraying an adenoidal schlemiel who just may be onto something for once. Goodwin and Mangan are also unexceptionable.
Also worthy of superlatives is the set by David M. Barber. I can't say I've ever seen another play set in a working garage, but if I had, I bet I'd have found this one more convincing, incorporating a complete slightly derelict-looking automobile. There are plays that just work better with a hyper-realistic set, and this is one of them. I think, in the past couple of years, I've only seen one set to equal it, John Lee Beatty's creation for The City of Conversation at the Lincoln Center (a meticulously-detailed cross-section of most of the first floor of an elegant Georgetown home), doubtless realized with a far greater budget.
Despite the work it still needs, North of the Boulevard is worth a look. The dilemma it poses is one for these troubled times, much of the bitter laughter it provokes is telling, and the acting and the set redeem much.
North of the Boulevard, by Bruce Graham, directed by Ed Herendeen, through August 3, at the Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$59, www.catf.org/boxoffice, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473. Adult themes, adult language.