Jeez, all the palookas want in North of the Boulevard is an effing break. Is that too much to ask?
They don’t want millions or to rule the world. They just want to pay some bills, maybe get ahead, buy some gifts for the kids, not pinch pennies until Abe cries like a girl. Most of all, they want to move out of their deteriorating, blue collar neighborhood in Philadelphia to the promised land north of the boulevard—where the schools are good and the opportunities more plentiful.
Bruce Graham’s play plops a juicy moral dilemma in the middle of an auto repair shop in a rundown community (recreated in meticulously greasy and engine-dusty splendor by set designer David M. Barber). Instead of philosophers in togas debating the price for the soul of a man, there is a bunch of foul-mouthed knuckleheads shooting the breeze like characters from a David Mamet play.
Garage owner Trip (Brit Whittle, radiating decency and doubt) fixes cars and presides over a makeshift bar (he has turned a grimy refrigerator into a beer tap) that sustains his boyhood friends in an extended happy hour and macho therapy session.
As Trip decorates a hapless fake Christmas tree, he takes in the bullhockey shoveled by Zee (Michael Goodwin, playing the role of a rancid old coot with relish) a perverted and nasty geezer who has been kicked out of every other establishment in town—even McDonalds.
You can see why. Zee spouts an often hilarious spew of misogyny, racism, political palaver and just plain old-fashioned stinging invective, most of it directed at his son Larry (Jason Babinsky, imbuing the part with endearing eccentricities). Zee’s rationale about what constitutes homosexual behavior and what doesn’t is alone worth taking in Graham’s play.
Larry does seem at first like a schlumpy victim, shuffling in wearing scrubs and an Elmer Fudd cap and speaking in a high-pitched voice with the kind of cadence that suggests he’s used to not being heard. Larry works as an aide in a sub-par nursing home and has a shrugging indifference to death.
But he also has dreams—like running for mayor and trying to clean up old boy network-style corruption. “It’s all common sense—and don’t steal” is Larry’s assessment of mayoral duties.
Needless to say, his decision is greeted with hoots of derision, especially from Bear (the excellent Jamil A.C. Mangan), a railroad security guard whose knowledge of trivia and odd bits of data makes him the African American counterpart of Cliff from “Cheers.”
NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD
Closes August 3, 2014
Contemporary American Theatre Festival
Frank Center Stage
260 University Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $53 – $59
Details and Tickets
Bear is the first to see the opportunity in misfortune, laying out a ghastly—but hideously funny–plan that will make each of them not exactly rich, but allow them at least some breathing room. Larry joins in with a vitriolic vitality that we haven’t witnessed before in his cowed actions, while Trip is more reluctant to get involved.
The play could be tightened and more focused on the central moral dilemma rather than going off on tangents like bullying, ingrained racism and the warehousing of our elderly.
Graham’s underdog comedy suggests that the American Dream can now be bought for so little. It’s a steal, literally. The men in North of the Boulevard don’t want the moon—they just want some shriveled scrap of what they think is owed to them.
That they can fling away any ethical concerns or pangs of conscience so cheaply is a statement on how, as a nation, we’ve sold our collective souls at rock-bottom prices.
North of the Boulevard by Bruce Graham . Directed by Ed Herendeen . Featuring Jason Babinsky, Michael Goodwin, Jamil A.C. Mangan and Brit Whittle . Set Design: David M. Barber . Costume Design: Therese Bruck . Lighting Design: D.M. Wood . Sound Design: David Remedios . Stage Manager: Debra A. Acquavella . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.