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A CurtainUp Review
North of the Boulevard

"Butchie would crawl over his mother's casket to fuck his sister." Zee
Scott Greer, Brian McCann, and Lindsay Smiling.
(Photo: Paola Nogueras)
The World Premiere of North of the Boulevard at Studio X proves once again that Theatre Exile doesn't do vanilla.

With his long experience and amazing ear for dialog, Bruce Graham distills his characters to their essence so they run true to form. We know guys like these. The anger and hope that collide inside their heads emerges in a kind of scuffed badass poetry. Graham takes on downturned socioeconomics and submerged race issues and throws them in with the laughs. North of the Boulevard is a guy thing. No specifically women's things here, except for maybe the thong.

Hard times have hit and stuck. A once nice working class neighborhood has changed and not for the better. "Nobody ever leaves here. They just die and then foreigners move in."

Trip (Scott Greer), owner of a small auto repair garage, has a kid who was beat up. And rumor has it that a chain store is moving in, threatening the survival of his small shop. Yet he's still intent on celebrating Christmas in the shop in his traditional way. (Yes, it's a Christmastime play. It joins a pantheon of shows. You know, Christmas movies like Die Hard, Batman Returns, The Godfather, Eyes Wide Shut, Lethal Weapon, and so forth.) Popular holiday music, although not of the "Silent Night" variety, plays around the edges.

Security guard Bear (Lindsay Smiling), one of Trip's pals from high school, wants to see his kids and he dreams big dreams of Florida. Larry (Brian McCann), an insecure nursing home attendant with an autistic son, wants to run for mayor. But more and more he appears to have the makings of exactly the kind of politician he despises. An older hanger-on, Zee (William Rahill), doesn't have a good word for anyone. Nothing is going right for these guys. Money is unattainable, and each is looking for a way out of a hopeless dead end. The appeal of moving away and living somewhere up the Boulevard has an over the rainbow allure.

It's hard to think of a theater that regularly transforms its space as completely as Exile does at Studio X in South Philly. Who knows what-in-the-world kind of set they'll do next. It could be anything, and seating could be anywhere. For this production, Studio X reverts to its former life as a garage. The ordinariness of the Matt Saunders scenic design, which includes an old Nissan Sentra, a tool-pegboard, a girlie calendar, a Shepard Fairey Obama poster, and all kinds of garage stuff ,is lit by fluorescent light (Thom Weaver). It's so real you can almost smell the old grease. But within such a hyper realistic set, the production would be enhanced by more small believable tasks that integrate characters' actions with the running verbal exchanges: Not brief make-work stage business, but sustained mindful actions like focused tinkering followed by wiping of hands on grimy rags, that sort of thing.

The pace doesn't lag under Matt Pfeiffer's direction, and the super actors dispatch the long, startlingly funny conversation that is this play. By the end of the first act they've thrashed out local lore, fathers and sons, and an accumulation of problems, resentments and strivings. But it's still anybody's guess where this is going.

In act two when an opportunity presents itself, a possible scheme develops. It's not easy to be a saint in the city. How bad do things have to get before a straight arrow kind of man will consider compromising his principles?

Times are bad in the neighborhood, and the sad roots of this comic play tap into deep sources. Yet it feels uplifting as these resilient characters percolate with desperate energy and irrational hope. It's such a pleasure to experience the heady heightened realism of the give and take, the ups and downs (mostly downs), and the full throttle comedy of North of the Boulevard.

North of the Boulevard
by Bruce Graham
Directed by Matt Pfeiffer

Cast: Scott Greer, William Rahill, Lindsay Smiling, Brian McCann
Scenic Design: Matt Saunders
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Costume Design: Alison Roberts
Sound Design: Zach Brown
April 18- May 19, 2013
2 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Studio X. South Philadelphia, S 13th St at Reed.
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 04/25 performance.
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