SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. VA., July 18, 2014 – It’s a genuine delight to see a play like Bruce Graham’s “North of the Boulevard” on this year’s CATF roster. First debuted last year at Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile, Mr. Graham’s funny but hard-hitting drama deals boldly with that rapidly vanishing breed otherwise known as America’s lower middle class.
Arguably, this play could very well be the 21st Century’s “Death of a Salesman,” a satirical parable about the vital heart of America that the academics, the pundits, the government and the elites have all forgotten.
Like much of this country’s middle class in general, the individuals and families depicted in the play, mostly white but not always, range professionally from small time entrepreneurs to (mainly) guys who perform skilled work with their hands in various trades.
They’re generally good at what they do, only wanting to support their families and be left alone in front of the flatscreen on Sunday afternoons during football season with a six-pack or three and a few buddies to help criticize the coaches and the refs.
But, caught between the scheming oligarchs of the 1%, the politicians they own, and the oppressive Federal government they corrupt on a daily basis, such hardworking, forgotten Americans are getting squeezed out of the social hierarchy due either to the debilitating effects of America’s Great Recession; the stifling, business-killing regulations of rogue agencies like the EPA and the IRS; and the apparently permanent banishment of the kind of good-paying full-time jobs that got them into the middle class to begin with.
Since they haven’t the money to buy political influence and often get their hands dirty at work—unlike your average overpaid bureaucrat—they’re gradually being driven to the margins of society toward extinction. They’re tired, angry, confused, broke, and don’t know what to do. Nothing in life ever prepared them for economic extinction.
All this describes the men who inhabit the cast of Bruce Graham’s welcome new play. They’re part of a cadre of workers who were once the backbone of our once-marvelous society but now feel—with good reason—that they’ve been permanently thrown outside of the castle walls that they and their fathers had once labored mightily to build.
“The Boulevard” in the title of this play refers to the informal boundary line in nearly every major American city that divides the rich from the poor, the better off from the poorly off. For racial dogmatists, it’s the line between the inner city ghetto and everywhere else. In reality, it’s a virtually invisible economic barbed-wire fence that keeps the elites and the “better classes” safe from everyone else and free from the taint of living too close to a bunch of losers.
Such lines evolve over a lengthy period of time when a given city neighborhood begins a slow period of decline, decay and lawlessness. It’s a transition that gradually forces current, longtime residents out as they seek to protect their endangered families from predation and crime.
Where do they go? “North of the Boulevard,” in the language of this drama. Those who can flee their declining neighborhoods, heading out, perhaps, to the suburbs where the kids and streets are safer, where there’s less graffiti and decay, and where, presumably there are better schools and parks.
As for those who otherwise can’t afford the costs of such a move? They’re trapped in an ongoing disaster they can’t escape. Life as they’ve known it, first ignores them and then passes them by as poverty engulfs them and takes them down forever.
The play’s the thing…
All this describes the situation being confronted by this play’s nominal protagonist, Trip (Brit Whittle), the hard working, obviously depressed proprietor neighborhood auto repair shop. His business, once moderately profitable, is now entering the final throes of failure.
He’s losing his traditional customers as, one by one, they decamp to seek refuge north of the Boulevard. Rising taxes combined with the lingering effects of the Great Recession have made profitability almost impossible.
Even worse, rampaging tree roots from an adjacent property are cracking his building’s cinderblock walls, but city regs have hamstrung his ability to address the situation. Trip’s whole enterprise is becoming a lost cause.
Name a problem and Trip has got it. And he’s clueless as to where he can turn and what he can do. Moving for him has ceased to be an option. He’s so broke that he could never afford a new or used house in a better neighborhood. His life is a mess, and it’s getting him seriously down.
Making matters worse he has to endure the boisterous nastiness of Zee (Michael Goodwin) who (apparently) works with him in the shop but spends most of his time venting his not-inconsiderable spleen on anything that moves, particularly blacks, Asians, and his own good but bumbling son, Larry (Jason Babinsky).
Larry, it turns out, is one of Trip’s old childhood pals. We soon meet another, goldbricking black security guard Bear (Jamil A.C. Mangan), who spends more time at Trip’s place than he does on the job.
The three eventually converge at the garage. Lubricated by plenty of brewski from the shop’s refrigerator-embedded endless tap, the three plus Zee rant and rave about the corruption of the politicians, the unabashed greed of the rich, and the sheer rottenness of their forgotten lives.
As the get-together progresses, Trip haphazardly begins to decorate the place for his annual Christmas party; Zee—arguably the group’s id-figure—becomes more and more intolerant and intolerable; and Larry, not the most charismatic fellow you’ve ever met, announces he’s decided to fight the political machine and run for mayor as the people’s candidate.
At the conclusion of the first act, however, an unpleasant surprise confronts the three younger amigos, causing this bitter, cynical comedy to take an unexpectedly somber turn: Will the boys accept their painful lot and go down with the middle class ship? Or will they toss principle aside, taking advantage of a moral crisis to escape the living hell closing in all around them?
The quartet of actors in this production virtually inhabit Mr. Graham’s deceptively simple characters, breathing realism and live into their performance. Trip, the resident capitalist and moralist has the most at stake in is life and in his business, and Brit Whittle turns in a remarkable effort. He blends hesitancy with conviction as his quintessentially guy-next-door character does a modern day Hamlet trying to figure out what’s right and just.
As his polar opposite, Michael Goodwin brings out the distilled nastiness that drives Zee relentlessly forward. Hateful and hate-filled seemingly from birth, he’s the embodiment of the negatives all of us strive to suppress. But Mr. Goodwin’s Zee no longer cares about what he says or who he hurts. He’s what happens to a human being who’s systematically left without alternatives or hope.
On the other hand, both Larry and Bear are oddly cut from similar cloth. Jason Babinsky’s Larry is a striving but ineffective family man who, unlike his irredeemable father, Zee, still retains his humanity and his compassion. Likewise, Jamil Mangan’s Bear. Self-admitted goof-off that he is, Bear is also a good and loyal friend who’s even able to practice forbearance as Zee’s increasingly specific taunts morph into outright racism.
Yet, at the pivot-point of the play, both Mr. Babinsky and Mr. Mangan find they transcend their outward civility, revealing an amoral, nearly explosive genius that’s been bottled up in their outward lives of quiet desperation.
Kudos to Mr. Graham for shining a light on what’s arguably become America’s existential crisis: the casual yet almost systematic destruction of the middle-class family man.
Such men, until now, and their all-American belief system kept extremists from both sides of the political spectrum from utterly dismembering the promise that once kept this country positive, aspirational, exceptional and alive. It’s a theme that needs to see the light of day more often before it’s too late.
A big hat tip as well to four fine actors who’ve somehow found a way to get deep inside the often-repressed yet complicated characters they portray.
The action of this exceptional play is set in a thoroughly realistic repair shop designed by David M. Barber. It’s this marvelous set, however, that’s both a blessing and a curse for the current production, something we quickly learned on opening night.
Somehow, throughout all the impressive detail, the placement of the set’s colorful elements—including an entire automobile—seemed to absorb the actors’ lines to the point where many became inaudible, even in the rows nearest the stage where we were seated.
This detail proved a fairly significant problem for us and for the production, serving to diminish the considerable efforts of the playwright, the actors, and the steady hand of director Ed Herendeen in a way that no one could have expected.
At intermission, this reviewer’s wife actually had to seek out one of the audio aids the Festival made available for the hearing-impaired at the Frank Center in order to hear the rest of the play.
The information seems to have reached the cast and crew at half time, as the cast noticeably increased their overall volume in the finale.
We would add that acoustical issues are a problem we don’t recall experiencing before in this space during the many years we’ve been reviewing this festival. So perhaps the CATF staff can figure out what’s at fault here and correct for it in successive performances. Ditto the same issue in “One Night,” also performed here, which had similar acoustical issues.
Otherwise, “North of the Boulevard” gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from us.
Ratings: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars) for the script and the acting.
* (1 out of 4 stars) for acoustics.
Contains explicit language. For mature audiences only.
“North of the Boulevard” by Bruce Graham will be performed in repertory through August 3, 2014 at CATF. Consult the information below for festival particulars and links.
Tickets, Times, and Places: The following info is taken from CATF press material:
Matinee and evening performances are held Wednesday – Sunday throughout the Festival at a variety of times and venues. Single ticket prices to the 2014 repertory are $59. Four-show and five-show subscription discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $100-$240. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 & under, and West Virginia residents.
Performance tickets can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open off-season Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by calling 800-999-CATF (2283), or 24-hours a day online by visiting www.catf.org/boxoffice.
For the official schedule, visit http://catf.org/schedule/
Complete season information – including playwright bios, promotional images and headshots, schedule, past production photos, videos, and ticketing – is available at www.catf.org. Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Getting there: It all depends on where you life. Marylanders and DC denizens will likely head out to Shepherdstown via the Beltway, I-270, I-70 plus a few turns on local roads in the general vicinity of Hagerstown before crossing the Potomac. All plays will be staged at venues not far from the bridge crossing.
Virginia residents will likely head out via the Dulles Toll Road/Greenway to the VA-7 Leesburg bypass and then to VA-WV-9 to the Shepherdstown turnoff. But other routes may also work.
Check the CATF web site for further details, or program your GPS for the theater location you need. Or visit CATF’s “Getting There” info at http://catf.org/map-a-directions/.
Dining and lodging: If you plan on getting the ticket package for the entire Festival, call now and check the CATF general website above for dining and lodging suggestions. NOTE: Shepherdstown has a surprising number of first-rate restaurants, but they tend to get jammed during the Festival. Reservations are HIGHLY suggested.