CATF: Bruce Graham’s NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD

IMG_1782On Sunday afternoon, we walked into the theatre for this show to be greeted by an extraordinarily realistic auto repair shop right up there on the stage.  Impressive!  And incidentally, it has to trade off every other night in repertory with the motel room set of One Night! … Which reminds me to rave about the designers for this whole Contemporary American Theater Festival enterprise.  Of the five new plays this year, this is the only one wedded to absolute realism in fine detail, and to be sure it’s all there: the grime, the cracks, the blaring radio, the rags, even the real car, hood up. But that’s not unusual: No set for any of the five plays shows any sign of make-do or slipshod scene design.  Every effort has been made to provide each playwright a finished, creative production design, in every way possible in keeping with the play.  Quality is evident all around.

Mr. Graham earned his stripes in stand-up comedy, which is pretty obvious from the first few lines of his dialogue here.  Words seem to come loud, hard and fast to him and to his characters.  This is a brazenly funny play, a madcap combination of farce and sitcom, set in that deceptive time of “Everything will turn out all right after all” optimism that followed President Obama’s election.  There are four recognizable, semi-sane characters, barking catchy one-liners that don’t sound at all forced, and performing spot-on comic buttons and hilarious slapstick movements.  An old man and his son throw truly damaging insults at each other.  A neighbor-friend in a cop uniform (or is he a security guard?) provides an observer’s eye, and also serves as the catalyst for the play’s ultimate moral dilemma.   The fourth man is Trip, the garage’s beleaguered owner, desperately hanging on to his shoe-string business.

As they say, “It’s all in the timing.”  And with these guys, the timing is impeccable, both in the writing and in the delivery.  They made it easy to laugh.  But the laughter is also more than a little embarrassing. And my wife would say it’s downright depressing to be laughing while watching so much emotional anger and pain being batted around. Yes, this is one of those plays where you find yourself laughing out loud at a bad situation turned worse, that really isn’t very funny at all.

Trip’s garage is the last holdout in that now destitute part of the city that has gradually become a dangerous gang battleground, largely abandoned by the middle class and traditional neighborhood businesses.  In so many ways, we realize that these guys, and so many more like them, are doomed.  It’s an old story:  The working middle class has gotten the shaft, and its survivors are left to dream the economically impossible dream.  In this case, they dream of moving to the “north side of the Boulevard,” where life would presumably be a bowl of cherries.

The entire first act of the play is devoted to setting up situation and character, saving action and dilemma for Act Two.  By the time an outrageous proposal seems to point our boys in the direction of their dream, we’ve already come to see that there really is no way out … and up north, the cherries are all gone anyway.

Like any good comedy, North of the Boulevard takes ordinary recognizable situations and characters, and exaggerates to the max.  So here we are, caught laughing away at a truly disturbing, farcical exaggeration of a situation that we know will inevitably be tragic.  It’s good old-fashioned dramatic irony in the extreme, and it works.  But we really do need to wrestle with our own consciences in order to give way to the hilarity.

In the end of course, it’s laughter that ultimately permits us all to blunt the impact of tragedy.  In North of the Boulevard, Bruce Graham has crafted a play from an uncomfortable one-gag joke that should give us all reason to question the superficial comforts of the universe we live in.

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