"North of the Boulevard," the new drama by prolific Philadelphia-based playwright Bruce Graham, is gritty – but is it true grit?

It tries to be, but this slice of life in a car shop in a decaying neighborhood we can assume to be somewhere near Roosevelt Boulevard is more like a playwright's idealized conception of basic street-life than a display of the real stuff.

 

In the world premiere presented by Theatre Exile at its Studio X in South Philadelphia, we get the feeling of confinement in this little service garage (Matt Saunders' set), and also the smothering sense of people who have lots of trouble in their lives and little to say, except to go over and over the same old dry and fruitless ground. They can get nowhere with an everyday little-guy complaint about the complications of anything, from business taxes to problems with the schools.

They see a government run by a party boss who also controls every bureaucrat, educator, lawmaker and police officer in their neighborhood. Defy him and the police will smash your tail light, charge you with not fixing it and after a series of lose-lose situations, hang you in a jail cell. Pardon me if I'm not properly cynical, but this – like much of the talk in "North of the Boulevard" – sounds all too extreme to be real, even among these can't-get-a-break characters.

Not that they face unreal problems: foreclosure, business hassles and the dangers magnified by a changing and impoverished neighborhood. The car shop owner (a great job by Scott Greer) is the only one among them with even a shard of common sense. He's battered by everyday surprises; his kid has been beaten up in a racially-based mugging and the neighbor's tree growing through the wall of his shop means a mountain of bureaucratic red tape blocking its removal. His three pals (played by Lindsay Smiling, William Rahill and Brian McCann) are essentially morons. One has been kicked out of every place in the neighborhood but the car shop, and another is his gullible son who himself has an autistic son. The third is the black pal among them – he reads a lot and knows a lot but has no idea how to make any of this work in his favor.

They don't talk, they argue in different pairings, and much of the gruff back-and-forth comes down to having money or not. Graham – and apparently the director, Matt Pfeiffer – intends for us to translate this constant acrimony into some sort of theatrical intensity but frankly, it's difficult to take a script whose every declamation is effing-eff-effing and after a while give an effing eff about the whole thing. Could these people actually say something meaningful?

Well, they finally get around to it sometime into Act Two, when the plot turns into a moral dilemma – a state of affairs Graham excels in as a playwright. Here, the general subjects are outright fraud and, more peripherally, race. The talk about fraud is what makes "North of the Boulevard" a play. But the talk about race is the best part of "North of the Boulevard" because the passions it ignites in the characters are real and honest. When they involve themselves in such talk – no matter whether you cringe at the assumptions and declarations or not – they are directly plucking America's rawest nerve. As for much of the rest of it, the nerves seem somehow stretched too far to be alive.
_

North of the Boulevard runs through May 19 at Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets. www.theatreexile.org or 215-218-4002.