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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

North of the Boulevard and Arms and the Man


Lindsay Smiling, Scott Greer and Brian McCann
Photo by Paola Nogueras
Funny and genuine, yet also a bit bleak and unsettling, Bruce Graham's North of the Boulevard, now running at Theatre Exile's Studio X, is an important and wide-ranging new play about people who can't figure out how to deal with a world in which all the rules of how to behave and how to succeed have changed. With colorful dialogue and vivid characters, it paints an intriguing picture of men and the choices they make when they've run out of choices.

"Just another fun-filled day at Trip's Auto," says Trip with an ironic grin. (Judging from clues in the dialogue, costumes and setting, I'm guessing Trip's repair shop is in one of the blue collar boroughs that straddle MacDade Boulevard in Delaware County, outside Philadelphia.) But things aren't much fun in the lives of Trip and his buddies. Trip's business is getting squeezed by competition from a chain store, and he's got home repairs that he can't afford. Trip and his old high school pals Bear and Larry are barely scraping by in a town worn down by decades of corrupt local politics and a vanishing industrial base. And all three are dealing with family issues; Trip's son was just beaten up at school in an attack that appears racially motivated. Yet while the racial profile of the neighborhood is changing, Trip, who has an Obama campaign poster on the wall of his garage, doesn't want to give in to the white flight that has led so many to escape to the north side of the boulevard. (Racial politics are complicated here; it's December 2008, and Bear is surely the only African American in town wearing a McCain/Palin campaign button.) Meanwhile, all three are putting up with Larry's elderly father Zee, a crude loudmouth who disgusts everyone he meets.

The three younger men are all looking for a way to a better life: Larry's plan is to win a quixotic political campaign, while Bear's is to win a McDonald's sweepstakes game. And then there's Trip, whose way out is ... what, exactly? Trip wants to take the moral high ground, but when a shady opportunity arises, he struggles with his conscience.

North of the Boulevard takes a few derivative turns in act two; a crime scheme has more than a few echoes of David Mamet, and there's some black humor that's too reminiscent of Joe Orton. And the resolution involves an ethical choice that isn't entirely satisfying dramatically (unlike the ethical choices in recent Graham plays like The Outgoing Tide and Any Given Monday). But under Matt Pfeiffer's straightforward direction, the play never loses its sense of urgency. Graham's dialogue is witty and naturalistic, with a great accumulation of detail that makes Trip's world seem authentic. And speaking of authentic, Matt Saunders' finely detailed garage set (with a beaten-up Nissan Sentra taking up much of the floor) adds to the sense of realism. (Considering Studio X used to be a garage, it's also highly appropriate.)

And the performances make the characters distinct and memorable: Lindsay Smiling's forceful Bear, Brian McCann's anxious Larry, William Rahill's gleefully annoying Zee. Best of all is Scott Greer's Trip, who grows increasingly frustrated with his sense of responsibility as he tries to carry the world—or at least this gritty corner of it—on his shoulders.

North of the Boulevard runs through May 19, 2013, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 - $37, with $10 Student Rush tickets available, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-218-4022 or online at www.TheatreExile.org.


For another type of comedy altogether, catch Quintessence Theatre's restrained but satisfying take on Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw's tale of a Bulgarian damsel who must choose between two suitors during her country's 1885 war with Serbia. Should she stay with her fiancÚ, a dashing but pompous war hero? Or should she switch her allegiance to a Swiss fighter in the Serbian army who is so unconcerned with battle that he carries chocolates instead of bullets?

Arms and the Man is a lighthearted romance that allows Shaw to make some sharp social critiques that puncture the pomposity of the military mindset. Director Alexander Burns' production mostly maintains a jovial and sweet mood, and the cast has fun with the material. Sonja Field is good as the self-conscious heroine, as is Khris Davis as the soldier who serves as a vehicle for some of Shaw's most pithy aphorisms. But the most enjoyable performances come from Sean Close, whose snappy delivery enlivens the role of a tart-tongued butler, and Mattie Hawkinson, who is sardonic and feisty as a maid who is too good for the powerful men who pursue her.

Arms and the Man is being presented as part of "The Chocolate & Champagne Repertory" (along with The Misanthrope), which runs through May 26, 2013, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling 1-877-238-5596 or online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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