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10, May 2013

Bruce Graham’s North of the Boulevard

by Steve Cohen

North of the Boulevard by Bruce Graham. Theatre Exile, 2013.


Bruce Graham has written so many plays that some critics describe his work as facile. But facile doesn’t necessarily mean superficial.

I’ve seen a maturation process at work in his latest, among at least a dozen plays.

Both Graham’s 2011 drama, The Outgoing Tide, and his latest, North of the Boulevard, provide credible characters wrestling with difficult decisions. In The Outgoing Tide it was whether or not the leading man should commit suicide before his senility confines him to a nursing home. Here it is whether a struggling auto repair shop owner should cover up a death and commit insurance fraud to get even with the system that’s screwing him.

Graham conceives working class protagonists who use vernacular that his audiences, especially in Greater Philadelphia, recognize. In the process, he forges a link between his characters and his audience. That might seem like pandering, but in these last two plays, at least, a more substantive form of communication is taking place.

In North of the Boulevard, the protagonist Trip seethes in helpless frustration because his part of town —- the gritty Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby —- has gone to hell. Unwelcome minorities and foreigners have taken over his streets and the schools. Public officials are corrupt. He can’t afford to move to a better neighborhood “north of the boulevard” (in this case, MacDade Boulevard). He feels frustrated: “A man works, he ought to get something back,” he says.

Urban decay is familiar territory, yet Graham here presents a series of twists. Surprising developments lead to confrontations among men who’ve remained friends since elementary school. The plot unfolds in the language of ordinary guys, even as my logical mind tried, and failed, to find holes in the intricacies of their schemes.

As in The Outgoing Tide, crucial decisions are made not just by the protagonist but also by those closest to him. The drama centers on drawing the assemblage into a consensus.

As portrayed by Scott Greer, Trip is a strong moral compass. Lindsay Smiling and Brian McCann are convincing as his friends; so is Bill Rahill as McCann’s alcoholic father.

Nor does the play’s conclusion tie everything up in a neat bow. It leaves more questions than answers, and audience members are left to quarrel about whether Trip made a correct choice.

In a further effort to connect with the onlookers, the production was mounted in a tiny enclosure. Director Matt Pfeiffer and designer Matt Saunders transformed Theatre Exile’s black box Studio X in South Philadelphia into a copy of a real garage in Upper Darby, with a broken-down 1994 Nissan Sentra sitting in the middle of the space while the audience sits on one side of the shop.

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