Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Theatre Exile
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's review of Swallow

Matteo Scammell, Alex Keiper, and Akeem Davis
Photo by Paola Nogueras
The lobby of Studio X, where Theatre Exile is presenting the area premiere of Tracey Scott Wilson's gentrification-themed Buzzer, features a bulletin board adorned with comments both for and against the practice from longtime Philadelphia residents. One statement from a South Philly small business owner stands out in particular: "They grin and say hi because they have been promised we will be gone soon." If only Wilson's stultifying drama addressed the issue with as much clarity and precision.

The play begins promisingly by presenting gentrification through the eyes of Jackson (Akeem Davis), an upwardly mobile black lawyer eager to get in on the ground floor of his old neighborhood's urban renewal. Jackson has no fond memories of the tough streets that raised him; he welcomes the restaurants, coffee bars, and yoga studios cropping up at breakneck pace. The neighborhood can only get better and better, just as he improved himself by winning scholarships to Exeter and Harvard Law.

Jackson convinces his girlfriend Suzy (Alex Keiper) to move into the luxuriously renovated loft he's bought just a few blocks from where he grew up. (Thom Weaver's high-ceilinged set suggests the kind of apartment most city-dwellers would sacrifice a child for). In short order, though, matters of domestic bliss are complicated when his boarding school buddy Don (Matteo Scammell) arrives fresh from his umpteenth stay in rehab, in need of a a place to reaffirm his sobriety. The trio spend the rest of the play navigating—often unsuccessfully—the miasma inside and outside what was supposed to be their dream home.

Wilson's stilted dialogue betrays neither an understanding of how people actually speak, nor an ear for heightened theatrical language. Her characters spend ninety minutes spouting what sound like talking points. The storytelling is also regrettably imbalanced, with Suzy and Don given far more time in the spotlight than merited. Keiper is a talented actress, but she cannot overcome Suzy's two-dimensionality. Living in a neighborhood where she is a minority transforms Suzy from well-meaning liberal to fragile, traumatized quasi-racist in record time. Likewise, Scammell cannot fully overcome the limitations in his character's writing; Don exists mainly as a plot device, not a flesh-and-blood person. And it doesn't help that director Matt Pfeiffer fails to engender a sense of intimacy between the characters, who ostensibly have known each other for decades, through good and bad times.

Davis gives an assured performance as Jackson, but again, you cannot help but feel that the promise of his character is never fully realized. Near the top of the play, Jackson says that he wants to "give back by going back"—perhaps his presence in the neighborhood will help others transcend their situation in a similar manner to his own. Yet as presented, Jackson doesn't seem to care about anything happening beyond his front door, which is confounded by Wilson's decision to confine the entire play to Jackson's apartment. Rather than achieving the desired claustrophobic atmosphere, it renders action toothless and segmented.

Jackson also has contempt for the people in the neighborhood, especially after he learns that Suzy has been a victim of street harassment by a group of young men who are a near-constant presence on their corner. But rather than use this development to explore the complicated politics of Jackson's return to the neighborhood as an agent of gentrification, it becomes little more than a deus ex machina for what is by now a foregone conclusion: that he and Suzy should not have moved there in the first place. As is the case with so much of this play, Wilson's execution is as unwieldy as her plotting is predictable.

Wilson's play leaves many key questions unanswered. Should we feel sympathy for the wealthy interlopers who end up with more than they bargained for? Is the march of progress always forward? What debt—if any—do we owe the communities that raised us? You cannot help but leave feeling that the compelling story of the inter- and intra-personal effects of gentrification on urban spaces is still waiting to be told.

Theatre Exile's production of Buzzer continues through Sunday, May 28, 2017, at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street. Tickets ($35-37) can be purchased online at

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