The effects of urban gentrification on two Chicago couples, one upwardly mobile and white, the other financially challenged and black, are examined in Broken Fences, a Road Theatre Company World Premiere whose star performances and impressive production design largely overcome the tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities of Steven Simoncic’s thought-provoking, often quite powerful script.
30something ad agency art director Czar (Coronado Romero) and his pregnant wife April (Mia Fraboni) and their new East Garfield Park next-door neighbors, EZ Lube mechanic Hoody (Bruce A. Lemon, Jr.) and his hairdresser fiancée D (Donna Simone Johnson), meet cute (or perhaps not so cute) when the young marrieds catch the African-Americans’ white gangsta-wannabe housemate Esto (Ben Theobald) with a couple boxes of tableware he’s pilfered from the rented moving van they’ve carelessly, cluelessly left open in front of their spiffily refurbished new home.
Fortunately, Hoody and D manage to smooth things over with their new neighbors, though it seems clear that neither couple is likely to be the other’s new best friends any time soon, the differences between them made abundantly clear by their side-by-side but night-and-day different abodes.
Over the course of the next five months, Broken Fences follows Czar and April and Hoody and D as the white couple attempt to fit into an occasionally hostile neighborhood (their house gets tagged three times) and the black couple try desperately to figure out how to pay a property tax bill three times higher than it was just a year ago.
Along the way, Hoody’s barista brother Marz (James Holloway) uses his military vet creds to start up a side business whipping yuppie fitness seekers like Czar’s ad account partner Spence (Kris Frost) and his wife Barb (Ivy Khan) into “Boot Camp” shape, while the two art directors take advantage of Czar’s new neighbors to test out their latest campaign: marketing a “cheese product” to the “urban” consumer with a racially insensitive gangsta-rap cartoon-character as spokesman.
Tonally, Broken Fences is all over the place, going from gritty drama to sitcom humor and back, interspersed with a series of borderline artsy (albeit superbly performed) monologs in which its lead characters reveal how “invisible” they have felt—or still feel—in their lives.
To white playwright Simoncic’s credit, Broken Fences’ African-American characters defy whatever stereotypes Czar and April may have harbored before moving to Garfield Park. (The rundown house Hoody and D call home turns out to have been in his family for decades, and it is one they refuse to consider selling, even for a cool quarter million.)
Czar and April and Spence and Barb, on the other hand, do little to surprise either us or their African-American neighbors, and Broken Fences would be a richer play if they did.
Lemon and Johnson do the evening’s most memorable work as Broken Fences’ most three-dimensional characters, making us care about Hoody and D from their first appearance, and Theobald, fresh from his star-making performance in Theatre 40’s Double Doors, positively dazzles as manic, street-talking Esto.
Romero and Fraboni each do fine work as fish-out-of-water Czar and April, Frost and Khan deliver entertianing turns as the sitcommy Spence and Barb, and GQ-ready Holloway makes an electrifying L.A. stage debut as Marz.
A stunning production design adds enormously to Broken Fences’ appeal. Scenic designer John Iacovelli’s side-by-side house give us gentrification at a single glance. Sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s dramatic underscoring (including some niftily distorted hip-hop tracks), Derrick McDaniel’s both subtle and flashy lighting effects, Michèle Young’s character-perfect costume choices, Hillary Bauman’s meticulous scenic painting, and Bettina Zacar’s eclectic mix of props could not be better.
Broken Fences is produced by Donald Russell. Lockne O’Brien is assistant director. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager.
Though some savvy script revision could take Broken Fences to a whole other level, the latest from The Road Theatre Company proves a conversation-starting look at just how life-changing an “urban trend” can be. Expect to be thinking about the issues it raises long after the cast have taken their bows.
The Road Theatre, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
February 26, 2016
Photos: Michèle Young