Sunday, February 16, 2014

Phoenix Theatre show offers gritty look at the urban context of the "hope and change" election


In the down-at-the-heels environment of Trip's Garage, an Obama election poster strikes an optimistic note. But the poster,  toward the rear of James Gross' set in the Phoenix Theatre's "North of the Boulevard," is taped into place to hide splits in a tree-damaged wall that the proprietor can't get any insurance relief to repair.

Trip similarly is challenged to patch up his care-worn optimism and the goodheartedness that spurs him to open his auto-repair shop to a come-one, come-all Christmas party every year, despite being taken advantage of by street people stuffing snacks into their pockets. In the course of Bruce Graham's play, he becomes as desperate as the people who regularly hang out at the shop to move "North of the Boulevard" — to a neighborhood that still offers the promise of the American dream.

Bear (Ben Rose) tells Zee (Rich Komenich) how things look to him.
The play, which opened over the weekend in a Midwest premiere production at the Phoenix Theatre, spares no comfortable bromide about American progress and civic rectitude from withering scrutiny.

Bear, a black security guard with street smarts as well as the kind that accrue from curiosity and self-education, reflects an earned skepticism. Larry, who works at a substandard nursing home, tries to keep bitterness at bay with flashes of compassion and fledgling political ambitions. His wastrel father, Zee, is a lost cause, a center of toxic vitality rapidly running out of resources.

These four characters fill the scenario fit to bursting with profanity-laced arguments and insights on race, family and the corruption of business and government as of December 2008.  The mess lies all around them, and lack of money blocks all attempts to improve their situation. The shocking conclusion to the first act opens up an unimagined possibility of escape; the second act consists in consideration of the moral and legal dimensions of yielding to temptation. Trip's uprightness is battered by a family crisis resulting from an unprovoked neighborhood assault on his teenage son. The outcome makes it clear that no one whose horizons are so hemmed in by forces beyond his control can easily avoid succumbing to them.

Bryan Fonseca directs an expert cast, acting from depth as well as a sense of their characters' raw nerves. As the audience is getting to absorb the cluttered detail of the set, including a customer's car on which precious little work is done, the opening scene flies by in too much of a hurry. The dialogue is paced like a revving motor, and though the four men are not the taciturn type, Saturday's performance took a while to steady itself, as a spate of minor line flubs also indicated.

Trip (Bill Simmons) assesses Bear's scheme for a McDonald's cup-sticker fortune.
Bill Simmons' performance as Trip was weary, wry and capable of revealing what happens to a friendly, trusting man when circumstances keep hobbling his survival skills. In the second act, what happens to the tacky Christmas tree he's assembled yet again is indicative of the strain he's under from trying to persevere. Playing the loudmouth outcast Zee, who long ago abandoned keeping up appearances, Rich Komenich gave the character a flicker of likability amid a blaze of viciousness as noxious as a fire in a tire dump.

Ben Rose put some delicacy into his portrayal of Bear. This is a man who knows how to adjust his responsibilities to accommodate his own pleasure and quest for advantage. A student of "The Tao of Pooh," Bear adopts a simple watchword: "Use what you got." In contrast, Larry (Joshua Coomer) wants something more than what he has, and can't wait to get rid of what life has handed him; his rage and zest for vengeance finally get a vehicle he thinks suitable. At the final curtain, that looks as doubtful as just about anything else in these men's lives.

Some will see "North of the Boulevard" as an impossibly retro play, despite its in-your-face language and probing of several current American sore spots involving race, opportunity, and social control. But this kind of kitchen-sink realism, which has the audience almost literally believing it's looking through the fourth wall, seems a good style for such a play's themes. There's an almost claustrophobic feeling to these characters' lives, and we are clearly meant not just to sympathize with them, but to feel as entrapped as they are. If we are fortunate enough in our real lives not to be caught in such snares, we benefit imaginatively from breathing the dank, fumy atmosphere of Trip's Garage for a couple of hours.